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Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is generally characterized as symptoms of difficulty breathing. Dyspnea can often feel like suffocating and can be caused by things like anxiety and other chronic and long-term diseases like asthma or allergies.

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About This Condition

Understanding Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Who gets shortness of breath?

You may have dyspnea if you have lung cancer. Or you may have it if you have another type of cancer, such as breast cancer, that has spread to the lungs. It can also happen if you have any of these health issues:

  • Anemia.

  • Pneumonia.

  • Blood clots in the lungs (pulmonary embolism).

  • Emphysema or chronic bronchitis.

  • Heart disease.

  • Overweight.

  • Asthma or allergies.

Some cancer treatments may damage the lungs and cause dyspnea. These include lung surgery, radiation to the chest (which affects the lungs), and certain medicines used to treat lung cancer.

How is shortness of breath diagnosed?

Each person may experience dyspnea in a slightly different way. You may be asked to describe your breathlessness as mild, moderate, or severe.

Dyspnea may keep you from doing things you normally do with ease. Your healthcare provider may ask you how your dyspnea affects your daily life and quality of life. Tell your provider how it impacts how far you can walk, how you eat, or even how you talk.

To help you talk with your healthcare provider about dyspnea, it may help to keep track of how it affects you. Keep a journal of when you have it, what makes it better, and what makes it worse.

Your provider may also order tests to find out what is causing your dyspnea, if the cause isn't clear. These might include blood tests or tests of your heart or lungs.

How is shortness of breath treated?

Dyspnea is usually treated by treating its cause. For example, if fluid is collecting in your lungs, your healthcare provider may need to drain the fluid to ease the dyspnea. You may need chemotherapy or radiation therapy to shrink a tumor that is causing the dyspnea. If dyspnea is caused by an infection, you may need antibiotics. If a blood clot is found in your lungs, you may need to take blood thinners.

Your healthcare provider may treat dyspnea with medicine. The type of medicine will depend on the cause. You may need:

  • Bronchodilators to open your airways.

  • Steroids to help reduce swelling in the lungs.

  • Anti-anxiety medicines to help break the cycle of panic. This cycle can lead to more breathing problems.

  • Pain medicines to make breathing easier.

Your provider may also prescribe oxygen to help with your breathing. Ask your healthcare team about breathing and relaxation methods you can try on your own.

Coping with shortness of breath: controlling stress

When you have lung problems, it may be hard for you to breathe. Stress can make it worse. Learn to relax and control stress to prevent shortness of breath and avoid panic.

When anxiety takes over

When you feel short of breath, your neck, shoulder, and chest muscles tense. You become anxious and start to breathe faster. Your breathing muscles tire and trap air in your lungs. Your chest may feel tight. Anxiety increases and you may start to panic.

Stop panic before it starts

The key to controlling panic is to break the cycle before it starts. When you are becoming short of breath do the following:

  • Sit, relax your arms and shoulders.

  • Lean forward, resting your upper body on your forearms.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose while counting to 2.

  • Hold your lips together as if you are trying to whistle or blow out a candle.

  • Breathe out slowly and gently through your pursed lips while counting to 4.

  • Repeat these steps as needed.

Learn to relax

Control stress by avoiding things that trigger stress and by relaxing when you start feeling tense. Find a quiet place and sit or lie in a comfortable position. Close your eyes and try the following:

  • Picture yourself in an ideal place, doing something you enjoy. Stay in that place until you feel relaxed.

  • Slowly tense and then relax each part of your body. Start with your toes and work up to your scalp. As you breathe in, tighten the muscles. Keep them tight for several seconds. Then relax as you breathe out.

  • You can also relax by doing tai chi or yoga, praying, meditating, or listening to music or relaxation tapes.

Talk with your healthcare provider about how you are feeling. It's important for your provider to understand what is going on and how it is affecting your life.

Diaphragmatic breathing

This is also called abdominal breathing. To do this type of breathing, first find your diaphragm. Here's how: Place your fingers just below your breastbone and breathe in. You can also lie on your back and put a book on your belly (abdomen). Watch your breathing pattern as the book rises and falls. Your goal is to make the book rise and fall with each breath.

Pursed-lip breathing

To do this type of breathing, keep your lips pressed together tightly, except for the very center. Take normal breaths. Breathe in through the nose. Then take twice as long to breathe out through the center of your mouth.

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