Chapter 3: Symptoms and health concerns
Shortness of breath – What can help
If shortness of breath is causing great distress, it's important to treat the feeling of being hungry for air. Then the healthcare provider may want to search for the cause of the problem. Sometimes the cause is not treated for several reasons. Treatment may not be possible, or testing and treatments might be too difficult on the person who has shortness of breath.
Even if the cause is not treated, there are several ways to treat this symptom in palliative care. The main treatments are medications, oxygen, and lifestyle changes. Click below for some things healthcare providers and families can do to help.
What the healthcare provider can do
Certain medications, puffers, or adjustments to current medications may be prescribed. Depending on the situation, the healthcare provider may prescribe an opioid, which can help to manage the feeling of air hunger.
Sometimes oxygen is prescribed for people experiencing shortness of breath. Oxygen concentrators might be used in the home depending on the person’s location.
The healthcare provider may provide helpful suggestions to decrease shortness of breath, such as slowing down and getting help with certain tasks.
What families can do
- Attempt to reduce anxiety and stress by offering a calm presence.
- Limit activity to what is necessary and plan for rest periods in between.
- Try to avoid activities that make shortness of breath worse, such as climbing stairs and bending down.
- Ask the person to sit down while you help them get dressed.
- If the person is in bed, help them to sit upright. Sitting up in bed with pillows under the arms and behind the back and head can help breathing. In a hospital bed, try raising the bed to a more upright position if it's okay with the person. At home, try sitting in a reclining chair.
- Open a window to get some fresh air, or place a fan on low speed nearby.
- If one lung is obstructed, try lying on the side that is blocked. This may allow more air to enter into the better functioning lung.
- Keep rooms cool with low humidity.
- Avoid cigarette smoke. Never smoke or light a match in a room where oxygen is being used because there is a real danger of starting a fire.
- Avoid allergens that may make shortness of breath worse.
Since anxiety can make shortness of breath worse, certain strategies such as imagery or progressive muscle relaxation strategies may be helpful. *See Complementary therapies and relaxation strategies PDF below.