Signs and symptoms of breathlessness

Many of the symptoms of breathlessness can be caused by cancer, treatment for cancer, or other medical conditions.

Contact your hospital advice line or GP straight away if:

  • you suddenly become breathless
  • your breathing gets worse
  • your breathing is painful

If you can't speak to someone quickly, call 999 or go to your local Accident and Emergency (A&E). You may need urgent treatment.

Symptoms of breathlessness can include:

  • difficulty catching your breath
  • noisy breathing
  • very fast, shallow breaths
  • an increase in your pulse rate
  • wheezing
  • chest pain
  • skin that looks pale and slightly blue, especially around your mouth
  • cold, clammy skin
  • using your shoulders and the muscles in your upper chest to help you breathe
  • anxiety or panicky feelings

At first you might become breathless when you are walking or climbing the stairs. In time you might be breathless even when resting and sitting down.

Talk to your doctor if you are worried about your symptoms, or if they are getting worse.

Possible causes of breathlessness

Breathlessness can be caused by cancer or its treatment. Other illnesses can also cause breathlessness.

Cancer treatments that can cause breathlessness include:

  • surgery to the lungs, for example, removing all or part of a lung to treat lung cancer
  • radiotherapy to the chest
  • some anti cancer drug treatments, for example, chemotherapy and immunotherapy Open a glossary item drugs 

Other illnesses that can cause breathlessness include:

  • chest infections
  • low haemoglobin levels (anaemia)
  • heart problems
  • a blood clot in the lung (pulmonary embolism)
  • lung diseases such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • a build up of fluid in the lung (pleural effusion)
  • asthma
  • anxiety and panic attacks
  • being overweight


Breathing problems can be uncomfortable. You might feel very panicky. But it is important to understand which comes first.

Sometimes, people having anxiety attacks will ‘over breathe’ and become breathless. But in this case, it is their anxiety making them breathless and not the other way round.

If you do have shortness of breath and you get panicky, try some breathing and relaxation techniques. They can help you feel more in control of your breathing.

  • Palliative Care and the Management of Common Distressing Symptoms in Advanced Cancer: Pain, Breathlessness, Nausea and Vomiting, and Fatigue

    L. Henson and others

    Journal of Clinical Oncology,  2020. Volume 38, Issue 9, Page 905–914.

  • Management of dyspnea in palliative care

    A.M. Crombeen and E.J. Lilly

    Current Oncology, 2020. Volume 27, Issue 3, Pages 142–145.

  • Oxford Textbook of Palliative Medicine (5th edition)
    N Cherny, M Fallon, S Kaasa and others
    Oxford University Press, 2015

Last reviewed: 
30 May 2023
Next review due: 
30 May 2026

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