Tips for When You Feel Shortness of Breath
Last updated: February 2022
I am a respiratory therapist. I am often asked to help people when they are feeling shortness of breath. Heart failure can cause you to feel short of breath. Respiratory diseases can also cause you to feel short of breath. Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference. Listed here are some tips for when you feel short of breath. These tips are things you can do to help you catch your breath.
Heart faliure and shortness of breath
When you have heart failure, your heart has a hard time keeping up with the oxygen demands of your body. This may become worse when you exert yourself. This is because, when you are moving, the oxygen demands by your body increase, and your heart may have a hard time keeping up. So your breathing speeds up and feels short. This is your body's effort to catch more oxygen.1-2
Other terms for this are winded or dyspnea. It is a feeling you can't catch your breath. Some people with heart failure feel short of breath at rest. That said, the most common time when people report shortness of breath is with exertion. Exertion can be defined as doing something as simple as walking through your house. It can occur when you are doing your normal activities.2
What can you do?
Here are some tips for when heart failure causes exertional shortness of breath:3-4
- Rest. Stop, stand, or sit in a chair. This will give your heart time to catch up with your body’s oxygen demands. Within a few minutes, your breath should come back.
- Pace yourself. Make sure you move along at a pace that is safe for you. Go as slow as you need to and make sure you have places where you can stop and rest along the way.
- Wear your oxygen. If you have home oxygen, use it when you exert yourself. Adding extra oxygen to your lungs can prevent your heart from falling behind. This can help prevent you from feeling short of breath and it can help you catch your breath.
Respiratory diseases may also cause exertional shortness of breath. Examples include asthma and COPD. These may cause air to become trapped inside your airways which can make it feel like you cannot get enough air in.
Here are some tips for when your lungs cause exertional shortness of breath:3-4
- Stop what you are doing. The most common cause is exposure to a COPD trigger. So, you will want to stop and remove yourself from the trigger. Sometimes, this alone can help you catch your breath.
- Have a seat. Sit up. Try to relax your shoulders as best you can.
- Pursed lip breathing. This is where you purse your lips when you exhale. Breathing through pursed lips helps slow your breathing down. This can help give air more time to get out.
- Exhale twice as long as you inhale. Inhale through your nose, and count to three as you do so. Then, exhale through pursed lips, and count to five as you do so. This helps to give more time for trapped air to get out of your lungs.
- Diaphragmatic breathing. Oftentimes, when people are short of breath, they have a tendency to breathe incorrectly. What they do is move their chest out and their diaphragm in when they inhale. This is an attempt to suck in more air, but this can make you feel very tired fast.
- Use your rescue medicine.
- Medicine like albuterol, levalbuterol, and Xopenex can help you catch your breath quickly. These are inhaled using inhalers and nebulizers.
If you feel short of breath, you are not alone in this community. With heart failure, the most common time to feel shortness of breath is when you are exerting yourself. The tips above should help you catch your breath.
If you continue to feel short of breath, or if you are experiencing it more than what is usual for you, please talk to your doctor. Your doctor may recommend changes to your treatment regimen to help you breathe easier. Your doctor may also adjust your treatment regimen to help prevent you from feeling shortness of breath.
What about you? What do you do when you feel short of breath? Please let us know in the comments below.
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