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American Thoracic Society

American Thoracic Society

All About Breathlessness

All About Breathlessness

Shortness of breath is common in PF. The American Thoracic Society explains this sometimes frightening symptom.


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Breathlessness, also called shortness of breath or dyspnea (DISP-nee-uh), may feel like tightness in your chest or like you can’t get enough air. While it doesn’t damage your lungs, breathlessness can be uncomfortable and even frightening.

In its  Patient Education Series, the American Thoracic Society gives a thorough overview of breathlessness, including possible causes and management.*

Why Might I Feel Breathless?

Breathlessness can have a variety of causes, including:

  • Lung disease 
  • Heart disease
  • Anemia 
  • Low fitness level  

Breathlessness can occur spontaneously, while performing strenuous activities, or even just while getting out of bed. 

How is Breathlessness Treated? 

Once the likely cause of your breathlessness has been determined, your doctor may prescribe:  medication, breathing techniques, exercise, and/or supplemental oxygen.

As you begin your treatment regimen, keep in mind these seven steps to optimal results:

  1. Take your medication(s) as prescribed by your physician(s). This includes inhalers and supplemental oxygen. 
  2. Practice breathing techniques. Different causes of breathlessness have corresponding techniques that can help maximize your breathing and ease your discomfort.
  3. Strengthen your stamina by staying active. Ask your doctor which exercises and activity levels are safe for you.
  4. Don’t rush through activities. Rushing can make breathlessness worse. Pace yourself. 
  5. Be conscious of your breath. If feeling breathless, try making your exhalation (breathing out) two to three times longer than your inhalation (breathing in). But don’t force it. Try to avoid holding your breath during particular activities like walking or lifting objects.
  6. Sit or stand with a fan blowing across your face, especially after strenuous activities.
  7. Ask your doctor about supplemental medications. Sometimes medications not intended to treat a particular condition can still have a beneficial effect. A few medications that may help ease breathlessness include:
  • Anti-anxiety medications
  • Pain relievers
  • Low doses of morphine

Pulmonary Rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation may also be part of your prescribed treatment where specialists help you:

  • Build muscle strength in your arms and legs
  • Increase stamina
  • Work with you to achieve your goals regarding types and levels of activity

Participating in pulmonary rehabilitation will also teach you:

  • Breathing and relaxation techniques to help you conserve energy
  • How to optimize inhaler use
  • Ways to manage stress and emotional strain

Have an Action Plan

Because breathlessness can come on suddenly, it’s a good idea to have an action plan in place to guide you through an episode calmly and safely. Your action plan may include:

  • Instructions about when to breathe through pursed lips or to use an inhaler (if prescribed)
  • Questions to ask yourself about:
    • The amount, color, and thickness of any phlegm you’re coughing up
    • Whether or not you have a fever
  • Guidelines for calling your doctor or going to the emergency room
  • What your healthcare provider needs to know about the time, conditions, and symptoms of the episode

Informing Your Doctor

Your doctor can determine the cause of your breathlessness and work with you to find the best ways to manage your symptoms. From there, it’s important to keep your healthcare team continually informed of your condition and how it’s affecting your life. 

Make sure to let your physician know if you:

  • Feel chest pain or pressure
  • Stop getting relief from inhalers
  • Develop a fever
  • Notice any changes in symptoms severity

To learn more, visit the  American Thoracic Society online.

*American Thoracic Society. (2013 [updated 2018, August]). Breathlessness. ATS Patient Education Series. [Original article published in the American Journal of Respiratory and Critical Care Medicine, 187, 3-4, 2013.]

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