Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is an uncomfortable condition that makes it difficult to 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. Others may experience it over the long term — several weeks or more.
You might find yourself short of breath if you:
- have a lung condition, like pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, or COVID-19
- do intense exercise
- experience a change in temperature, for example, going from a warm room to the cold outdoors
- experience anxiety, panic, or severe stress
- are in an area with high levels of air pollution
- are at high altitude
- have obesity
- have cancer
that affectsthe lungs or are having cancer treatment, like chemotherapy
Sometimes breathlessness starts suddenly. In this case, it could quickly become a medical emergency that needs urgent attention. Possible causes include:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- heart attack
- low blood pressure
- an asthma attack
- an allergic reaction
- a blood clot in the lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism
If anyone has concerns about their ability to breathe, they or someone else should seek emergency medical help. If breathing problems persist, they can lead to low oxygen levels in the blood, and this can soon become a life-threatening emergency.
Most people who develop COVID-19 will only experience mild symptoms. But you should seek emergency medical attention if you experience:
If a medical emergency doesn’t cause your shortness of breath, 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:
This is a simple way to control shortness of breath due to panic, COPD, or hyperventilation. It helps quickly slow your pace of breathing, which makes each breath deeper and more effective. If you’re very short of breath after exercising, you should seek medical help.
To perform pursed lip breathing:
- Relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose for two counts, keeping your mouth closed.
- Purse your lips as if you’re about to whistle.
- Breathe out slowly and gently through your pursed lips to the count of four.
Resting while sitting can help relax your body and make breathing easier.
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, leaning your chest slightly forward.
- Gently rest your elbows on your knees or hold your chin with your hands. Remember to keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed.
This position is a form of “tripod stance,” which aims to create more space in the chest cavity for the lungs. It’s helpful if you have COPD, and you may find you do it without thinking about it. It’s not suitable for people with high levels of obesity.
Sitting forward supported by a 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.
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, facing a table.
- Lean your chest slightly forward and rest your arms on the table.
- Rest your head on your forearms or on a pillow.
This position is another form of tripod breathing, which creates more space for the lungs in the chest.
Standing with supported back
Standing can also help relax your body and airways.
- Stand near a wall, facing away, and rest your hips on the wall.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and rest your hands on your thighs.
- With your shoulders relaxed, lean slightly forward, and dangle your arms in front of you.
As with other forms of tripod breathing mentioned above, this position makes more space in the chest for your lungs.
Standing with supported arms
- Stand near a table or other flat, sturdy piece of furniture that’s just below the height of your shoulder.
- Rest your elbows or hands on the piece of furniture, keeping your neck relaxed.
- Rest your head on your forearms and relax your shoulders.
In the classic “tripod” position, you can do this by placing a cane on the floor in front of you and leaning on it with both hands.
Sleeping in a relaxed position
People with sleep apnea 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.
Diaphragmatic breathing can also help manage shortness of breath.
To try this breathing style:
- Sit in a chair with bent knees and relaxed shoulders, head, and neck.
- Place your hand on your belly.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. You should feel your belly moving under your hand.
- As you exhale, tighten your muscles. You should feel your belly fall inward. Breathe out through your mouth with pursed lips.
- Put more emphasis on the exhale than the inhale. Keep exhaling for longer than usual before slowly inhaling again.
- Repeat for about 5 minutes.
A 2019 study found that combining these breathing strategies helped expand chest volume in a group of people with COPD and reduced the number of breaths they needed to take.
Using a fan
Various experts recommend using a fan to blow cool air and help relieve shortness of breath, and some older research supports this. Pointing a small handheld fan toward your face may help your symptoms.
Findings published in 2018 found using a fan helped people who had difficulty breathing due to late-stage cancer.
But ask your doctor before increasing your caffeine intake. Because of its stimulant effects, consuming too much caffeine
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. If you know why you have difficulty breathing and the symptoms are mild, you can take steps to relieve it 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
- managing body weight
- avoiding exertion at high elevations
- staying healthy through dietary choices, exercise, and getting enough sleep
- seeing a doctor for any underlying medical issues
- getting vaccinations to prevent flu, COVID-19, and other diseases
- following the recommended treatment plan for any underlying illness like asthma, COPD, or bronchitis
- learning as much as you can about breathlessness, why it’s affecting you, and what your options are
Remember, only a doctor can properly diagnose the cause of your shortness of breath.
If you see a doctor about shortness of breath, they’ll start by looking for any underlying health conditions that may be causing the problem. If they identify a specific cause, they’ll recommend suitable treatment.
Medications for shortness of breath
Medications for breathlessness include:
- inhaled medications that help open the airways
- drugs to treat specific conditions
- pills or liquids to help reduce sputum and clear the lungs
- drugs to manage allergies
- treatment for a heart condition
Some people who have a lung condition benefit from a form of therapy known as pulmonary rehabilitation. A therapist will teach you ways to manage breathlessness. They can also advise on lifestyle choices like boosting fitness levels and quitting smoking, if appropriate.
Pulmonary rehabilitation can help you manage your breathing and may improve your overall wellbeing and quality of life.
Counseling like cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) might be suitable for some people with shortness of breath.
You might benefit from this approach if you:
- have a chronic lung disease that is causing your stress or anxiety
- have depression alongside or because of another condition
- have a panic or anxiety disorder
- wish to stop using tobacco but are finding it hard
CBT can help you find new ways to face stressful situations. This type of therapy can help address some of the factors that cause breathlessness or make it worse. Your doctor might recommend it alongside pulmonary rehabilitation.
People with severe breathing problems may need oxygen. Doctors can provide oxygen in the hospital, but some people use it at home. Never use oxygen at home unless a doctor advises it, and always follow the instructions when doing so.
Call 911 or go directly to the emergency room if you:
- suddenly or unexpectedly find it hard to breathe without knowing why
- have trouble breathing and feel something is stuck in your throat
- don’t feel an improvement in your breathing after the problem starts
- have chest pain or another symptom
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
If you’re concerned about your shortness of breath and don’t already have a primary care professional, you can view doctors in your area through the Healthline FindCare tool.
You should also see your doctor if your shortness of breath is accompanied by:
- swollen feet and ankles
- difficulty breathing while lying flat
- a fever with chills and a cough
- a worsening of your shortness of breath
Studies have shown that some people are unwilling to seek help. Those who use tobacco, for example, may feel it’s their fault and don’t want to bother others. But experts insist that anyone with concerns about their breathing should seek help.
A doctor can help you find ways of relieving breathlessness. If they identify an underlying cause, they can provide appropriate treatment.
Breathlessness can occur for many reasons, and relieving it may depend on the underlying cause. Home remedies, like deep breathing, using a hand fan, or changing position can often help you get your breath back.
But shortness of breath can also be a sign of a more serious condition. If the problem persists or if you have other symptoms, consider seeing a doctor. They can help you find relief and may suggest treatment for an underlying health condition.