Managing breathlessness

Many conditions, such as heart or lung diseases, cause breathlessness.

Breathlessness can be very frightening and distressing, even in milder cases. The following steps may help you feel less breathless. You might find some of these steps more helpful than others. Try them out and use the ones that you find most helpful:

Last Update 31/01/2024
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Finding a comfortable position to ease your breathlessness

Sit upright in a comfortable armchair with both arms supported on the sides of the chair or cushions. Let your shoulders drop and relax. Rest the soles of your feet on the floor.

Sitting up

Sit on a chair and let your body flop forwards. Rest both arms on a table or your knees to support you.

Lie on your side propped up with pillows under your head and upper body. Tuck the top pillow into your neck to support your head. Rest your top arm on a pillow placed in front of your chest and your top leg on another.

Managing your breathing

In your comfortable position, loosen your wrists, fingers and your jaw.

Abdominal and tummy breathing

Rest a hand on your tummy and breathe in gently to feel your tummy rise. Then breathe out slowly through your nose or your mouth. Rest and wait for the next breath to come. You may find it helpful to purse your lips while you breathe out slowly. It may help you to imagine you are making a candle flame flicker, without blowing it out fully.

Slowing down

When you are comfortable with the tummy breathing, try to slow down the speed of your breathing. When you slow down, your breathing becomes deeper and more efficient. Imagine air filling your tummy like a balloon. You can practice this technique regularly so that it becomes easier when you feel breathless.

Breathe a rectangle
  • Once you have found a comfortable position, look around for a rectangle. This might be a window, a door, picture, or even a book or television screen.
  • Now follow the sides of the rectangle with your eyes as you breathe, breathing in on the short sides and out on the long sides.
  • Gradually slow the speed that your eyes move round the rectangle, pausing at the corners to help slow your breathing.
Cooling the face

Cooling the face, especially around the nose, can help reduce how breathless you feel. Try wiping a cool wet flannel on your nose and upper cheeks of your face.

Tips for living with breathlessness at home

When walking
  • Move at a comfortable pace, and breathe steadily
  • Avoid holding your breath, or trying to move or turn too fast
  • Pace your breathing to your steps; breathe in for one step, breathe out for the next two steps
  • Use walking aids if they help you
  • Stop and rest whenever you need to.
When climbing steps or stairs
  • Use the handrail when climbing stairs and take the steps slowly. Try resting for at least five seconds every few steps.
During day-to-day activities
  • Keep things you use often close to you
  • Have a charged phone close to your bed or armchair
  • Plan ahead with your chores or daily activities, such as bathing or housework
  • Spread your activity throughout the day
  • Have everything you need before you start an activity
  • Rest between activities or when your breathing begins to feel uncomfortable
When feeling anxious
  • There are many ways to deal with worried feelings. These include mindfulness, listening to relaxing music, or doing gentle activity such as gardening, yoga, singing or reading a book.
When eating and drinking
  • Take small meals often, rather than one large one
  • Eat smaller mouthfuls
  • Avoid foods that are difficult to chew; add sauces when possible
  • Drink little and often, particularly water, to avoid becoming dehydrated.
Keep active
  • It is important to stay as active as you can, to prevent your muscles becoming weaker.

It is okay to ask for help. Please contact your usual health and social care teams if you need further support.

Additional resources

References: Bausewein et al. 2008. Cochrane CD005623; Brighton et al. Thorax 2019;74:270-1. Positioning images reproduced with permission of the Cambridge Breathlessness Intervention Service.
How to cite this resource:
Higginson IJ, Maddocks M, Bayly J, Brighton LJ, Hutchinson A, Booth S, Ogden M, Farquhar M. on behalf of the NIHR Applied Research Collaborative Palliative and End of Life Care Theme. April 3rd 2020. Managing your breathlessness at home during the corona virus (COVID-19) outbreak.
This factsheet was produced in June 2020 as part of the BETTER-B project. BETTER-B is funded by the European Union’s Horizon2020 research and innovation programme under grant agreement No. 825319 and EudraCT 2019-002001-21.