Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is an uncomfortable condition that makes it difficult to fully get air into your lungs. Problems with your heart and lungs can harm your breathing. Some people may experience shortness of breath suddenly for short periods of time. Others may experience it over the long term — several weeks or more.

Emergency situations
Call an ambulance if you experience sudden and severe difficulty in breathing, especially if it’s accompanied by tightness in your chest.

If your shortness of breath isn’t caused by a medical emergency, you could try several types of home treatments that are effective at helping alleviate this condition. Many simply involve changing position, which can help relax your body and airways.

Here are nine home treatments you can use to alleviate your shortness of breath:

1. Pursed-lip breathing

This is a simple way to control shortness of breath. It helps quickly slow your pace of breathing, which makes each breath deeper and more effective. It also helps release air that’s trapped in your lungs. It can be used any time you’re experiencing shortness of breath, especially during the difficult part of an activity, such as bending, lifting objects, or climbing stairs.

pursed lip breathing

To perform pursed-lip breathing:

  1. Relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
  2. Slowly breath in through your nose for two counts, keeping your mouth closed.
  3. Purse your lips as if you’re about to whistle.
  4. Breath out slowly and gently through your pursed lips to the count of four.

2. Sitting forward

sitting forward

Resting while sitting can help relax your body and make breathing easier.

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, leaning your chest slightly forward.
  2. Gently rest your elbows on your knees or hold your chin with your hands. Remember to keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed.

3. Sitting forward supported by a table

sitting forward by table

If you have both a chair and table to use, you may find this to be a slightly more comfortable sitting position in which to catch your breath.

  1. Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, facing a table.
  2. Lean your chest slightly forward and rest your arms on the table.
  3. Rest your head on your forearms or on a pillow.

4. Standing with supported back

standing with supported back

Standing can also help relax your body and airways.

  1. Stand near a wall, facing away, and rest your hips on the wall.
  2. Keep your feet shoulder width apart and rest your hands on your thighs.
  3. With your shoulders relaxed, lean slightly forward, and dangle your arms in front of you.

5. Standing with supported arms

standing with supported arms
  1. Stand near a table or other flat, sturdy piece of furniture that’s just below the height of your shoulder.
  2. Rest your elbows or hands on the piece of furniture, keeping your neck relaxed.
  3. Rest your head on your forearms and relax your shoulders.

6. Sleeping in a relaxed position

sleeping in relaxed position

Many people experience shortness of breath while they sleep. This can lead to waking up frequently, which can diminish the quality and duration of your sleep.

Try lying on your side with a pillow between your legs and your head elevated by pillows, keeping your back straight. Or lie on your back with your head elevated and your knees bent, with a pillow under your knees.

Both of these positions help your body and airways relax, making breathing easier. Have your doctor assess you for sleep apnea and use a CPAP machine if recommended.

7. Diaphragmatic breathing

diaphragmatic breathing

Diaphragmatic breathing can also help your shortness of breath. To try this breathing style:

  1. Sit in a chair with bent knees and relaxed shoulders, head, and neck.
  2. Place your hand on your belly.
  3. Breathe in slowly through your nose. You should feel your belly moving under your hand.
  4. As you exhale, tighten your muscles. You should feel your belly fall inward. Breathe out through your mouth with pursed lips.
  5. Put more emphasis on the exhale than the inhale. Keep exhaling for longer than usual before slowly inhaling again.
  6. Repeat for about five minutes.

8. Using a fan

One study found that cool air can help relieve shortness of breath. Pointing a small hand-held fan toward your face can help your symptoms.

9. Drinking coffee

A study indicates caffeine relaxes the muscles in the airways of people with asthma. This can improve lung function for up to four hours.

Lifestyle changes to treat shortness of breath

There are many possible causes of shortness of breath, some of which are serious and require emergency medical care. Less serious cases can be treated at home.

Lifestyle changes you can make to help keep shortness of breath at bay include:

  • quitting smoking and avoiding tobacco smoke
  • avoiding exposure to pollutants, allergens, and environmental toxins
  • losing weight if you’re obese or overweight
  • avoiding exertion at high elevations
  • staying healthy by eating well, getting enough sleep, and seeing a doctor for any underlying medical issues
  • following the recommended treatment plan for any underlying illness such as asthma, COPD, or bronchitis.

Remember, only a doctor can properly diagnose the cause of your shortness of breath.

When to call a doctor

Call 911, unlock the door, and sit down if you:

  • are experiencing a sudden medical emergency
  • can’t get enough oxygen
  • have chest pain

You should make an appointment to see your doctor if you:

  • experience frequent or continued shortness of breath
  • are awakened at night because you’re having trouble breathing
  • experience wheezing (making a whistling sound when you breathe) or tightness in your throat

You should also see your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:

  • swollen feet and ankles
  • difficulty breathing while lying flat
  • a high fever with chills and a cough
  • wheezing
  • a worsening of your shortness of breath