Dyspnea or Cough

Difficulty Breathing

Image of Woman BreathingDyspnea (also called shortness of breath or breathlessness) is common in people with serious or advanced illness. It makes breathing difficult and uncomfortable and can cause much suffering. There are many causes of dyspnea. It can occur due to lung problems such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It can be a symptom of other health problems such as heart disease, cancer or neuromuscular disease. And it may develop as any terminal illness progresses.


The main goal of treatment is to help the person breathe more comfortably. To do this, medicines and other therapies are often used.

Medicines can include:

  • Oxygen therapy. This treatment helps improve breathing. It may be prescribed if tests show low oxygen in the blood. It may also be prescribed if it adds to the person’s comfort.
  • Opioids. These medicines are most often used to relieve pain, but they can also help ease shortness of breath.
  • Other medicines. These can include medicines to relieve specific problems that can occur with dyspnea, like anxiety.

Other therapies can include:

  • Breathing exercises. People are often taught pursed-lip breathing and diaphragmatic breathing to help them breathe better. These techniques can also help relieve dyspnea and anxiety.
  • Techniques to conserve energy. People are taught the best ways to move and use their bodies. This helps them conserve strength and makes breathing easier when doing normal tasks.
  • Body positioning. For some people, sitting upright may increase comfort and improve breathing. It may also help to raise the head of the bed when resting.
  • Relaxation. This can help reduce stress and anxiety, which can make dyspnea worse. Some common methods include meditation and visualization. Simple activities can also help people relax and be distracted from shortness of breath. These include things such as reading a book, watching a movie, or listening to music.
  • Breathing devices. These can be helpful in opening a person’s airways to decrease breathing problems. A respiratory therapist can help decide if a breathing device would be helpful.