Tips to help you manage everyday activities

Breathlessness can affect your everyday activities. You may find it helpful to:

  • prioritise things you most enjoy or that most need doing
  • plan ahead
  • pace yourself and take breaks
  • sit down to wash, dress or prepare food.

There are things you can do around the house to help with breathlessness, such as putting a chair in a hallway so you can rest when walking between rooms.

When bathing, don’t use very hot water as it may make you breathless. Opening a door or window can stop the room getting hot and steamy.

If you have difficulty going to the toilet, grab rails or a raised toilet seat may be helpful. An occupational therapist may be able to help you make changes around your home to make things easier

Being physically active can improve your breathing and make you feel better. Remember to take things slowly and use controlled breathing. You can gradually build up your activity.

Breathlessness can affect your eating and make your mouth dry. It can also affect your sex life. If you are worried about these effects, talk to your GP about ways to manage them.

Managing everyday activities when you are breathless

It’s good to keep active, but when you are breathless everyday activities can sometimes feel overwhelming. Some of the following tips may help.

Prioritise

Save your energy for the things that most need doing, or are most important to you. Before doing a task, consider whether you need to do it. If it’s not necessary, choose not to do it. If it’s a more strenuous task, ask family or friends to help. Do everything the easiest way you can. Give yourself extra time to do things so that you are not rushed or stressed. You will then be less likely to become breathless.

Plan ahead

It’s possible to make some tasks easier by planning ahead. For example doing your shopping online or asking someone to do it for you. Most supermarkets offer online shopping and home delivery. You might also find that tasks are easier at a certain time of day. If that’s the case, plan ahead so you can do the things you want to at times when you’re likely to find them easier.

Pace yourself

Keep a balance between periods of activity and periods of rest. You may want to take a break during an activity as well.


Managing tasks around the house when you are affected by breathlessness

  • Think about ways to arrange your home to make tasks easier. For example putting a chair in a hallway or on a stair landing so you can rest when walking between rooms.
  • Sit down to carry out everyday tasks like washing, dressing or preparing food.
  • Arrange your kitchen with frequently used items stored at waist height, so you don’t have to bend or stretch to cupboards or shelves.
  • Try to avoid bending from the waist down, as this can restrict your breathing. Instead, try easing yourself into a crouching position while keeping your back straight and bending your knees. This keeps your chest upright and your shoulders back. You may find it helps to hold on to a secure piece of furniture such as a sofa when you do this. Some people find using a pick-up stick or reacher useful. An occupational therapist can give you advice on this.
  • Try not to lift heavy items as this can make you tired and short of breath. Laundry or shopping can be carried more easily in a trolley. Allow yourself as much rest as you need. Don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. If you live alone and are struggling, talk to your doctor about what help is available.
  • Pushing rather than pulling a trolley is easier for some people. Resting on the handle in a forward leaning position may also be helpful.
  • Keep a phone close by – using a telephone extension cord, cordless or mobile phone will make this easier. If your phone is in another room, ask people to give you plenty of time to answer.
  • An intercom, such as a baby monitor, is a good way of talking to someone in another room without having to shout or get up, especially at night.
  • Placing several pillows behind you in bed can help support you in a more upright position. Ask for a physiotherapy referral to find out what positions are best for you.

‘Bending is a problem. I have to be careful when picking something up from the ground. I must bend my knees like I’m sitting, and then pick it up.’

Terry


Getting dressed when you are affected by breathlessness

  • Sit down when dressing. Choose loose-fitting clothes, especially around the waist and chest. Bring your feet up to put on socks, tights and shoes, as bending can make you breathless. Slip-on shoes are easier to get on and off than shoes with laces.
  • When you undress, don’t hold your breath as you take clothes over your head. Take your arms out of your top first, then quickly slip it over your head. This means your face is only covered for a short time and you don’t have to raise your arms for too long.


Bathing when you’re affected by breathlessness

  • Bathrooms can become warm and quickly fill with steam. When bathing, open a window or leave the door slightly open.
  • Once you’re undressed, sit at the side of the bath and slowly lift in one leg at a time. After bathing, let the water drain out before you get out. You may find it easier to kneel up first and rest for a few moments before standing up.
  • Keep the water warm but not too hot, as this can make you breathless. If you shower, try to keep the spray away from your face. Some people find it helps to turn the water off while they soap themselves, and then turn it back on to rinse off. Sit safely on a seat or stool in the shower if there’s enough space.
  • A large towel wrapped around you, or a bathrobe, will help you get dry without vigorous rubbing and patting. Keep sitting down while you dry off. Bring your feet up so that you don’t have to bend to dry them. Remember to keep using gentle, controlled breathing from your tummy.


Going to the toilet when you’re affected by breathlessness

  • If you have difficulty getting to the toilet, a urine bottle or commode (portable toilet seat and bowl) can help. A district nurse can arrange for you to have one if needed. Your hospital or GP can arrange for you to have a district nurse.
  • Equipment and aids such as grab rails, a raised toilet seat and a bath board can make bathing and going to the toilet easier.

An occupational therapist can visit you to see what might help make things easier for you around your home.


Diet and breathlessness

You may find that breathlessness can cause problems with eating. If your appetite is poor, you can add high-protein powders to your normal food or replace meals with nutritious, high-calorie drinks. These are available from most chemists and can be prescribed by your GP or a dietitian. You can ask to be referred to a dietitian at your hospital. If you are at home, your GP can arrange this for you.

Here are some other tips:

  • Smaller meals on a smaller plate are easier to manage.
  • Eat slowly and take smaller mouthfuls.
  • Try to avoid chewy food.
  • Try adding sauces or gravies to make food easier to eat.
  • Drink sips of fluid often. This can help keep your mouth moist and stop phlegm getting sticky, making it easier to cough up. Drink at least 1.5 litres (3 pints) of fluid a day if you can.
  • Frozen ready meals can help on days when preparing food feels too difficult.

Having a small alcoholic drink like sherry or brandy before a meal can help to improve your appetite.

We have more information about eating problems and cancer.


Dry mouth and breathlessness

Being short of breath can cause you to breathe more through your mouth and less through your nose. This can cause your mouth and tongue to become dry, leaving a bad taste.

Tips if you have a dry mouth

  • If your tongue is ‘coated’ it may make your food taste unpleasant and might put you off eating. If your tongue is coated a lot of the time, ask a member of your healthcare team for further advice.
  • Frequent drinks, even if you just take a few sips at a time, can help keep your mouth moist. You may find fizzy drinks the most refreshing. Keep a glass of water by your bedside and carry water with you when you go out.
  • Try sucking ice cubes or ice lollies. You can make lollies by freezing fresh fruit juice in ice-cube trays or in special lolly containers with sticks.
  • Keep your food moist with sauces and gravies.
  • Avoid chocolate and pastry as they can stick to the roof of your mouth.
  • Tell your doctor about your dry mouth. They can prescribe mouthwashes, lozenges or artificial saliva sprays or gels if you think they might help.
  • Use lip balm for dry lips, but do not use any balm on your lips during radiotherapy treatment. Speak to your clinical nurse specialist or radiotherapy team about this. 
  • If you need to moisten your lips while having oxygen, you should use a water-based lubricant (for example K-Y Jelly) and not petroleum jelly.

You may find it helpful to read our information on having a dry mouth (xerostomia) and mouth care during chemotherapy.


Going out

If you’re planning a day out somewhere unfamiliar, it may be helpful to get some information in advance. You might want to find out whether there’s a lift, parking and transport facilities and how far you’ll have to walk to your destination.

The air in some places may be drier, for example if it’s a cold, dry day, or if there is air conditioning. This can cause a dry mouth (see above) or coughing. Taking a small bottle of water with you can be useful. You should also keep a handheld fan with you to help if you have an episode of breathlessness.

Some people find that when the air is cold outdoors it can help to place a scarf across their mouth. This warms and adds moisture to the air they breathe in.

When you’re walking outdoors, take it slowly and use controlled breathing. Try to bring the rhythm of your breathing in line with your walking. You can do this by breathing in on one step then out on the next two steps.

Aids such as a walking stick, a wheeled frame or a wheelchair can be useful when you’re outdoors, particularly for longer trips. Your nurse, physiotherapist or occupational therapist can arrange these for you. You can also hire wheelchairs from the British Red Cross. Your local shopping centre or supermarket may also have wheelchairs you can borrow while you’re there.

The Shopmobility, Motability and Blue Badge schemes may be able to help you get out and about if you have reduced mobility. Ask your nurse, occupational therapist or social worker for details.


Physical activity and breathlessness

Physical activity can improve your breathing by helping you to be as fit as possible and make you feel better. Even people with severe breathing problems can benefit from small amounts of physical activity.

Physical activity won’t necessarily make you breathless, especially if you take it slowly and use controlled breathing as much as possible. You may get breathless but eventually you will be able to do more before you get breathless. You’ll also find that getting breathless will not hurt you, although it is an unpleasant feeling.

By gradually increasing the activity you do, you’ll become fitter and your muscles will get stronger. Over time, you’ll be more confident in your ability to control your breathing, and know when and how to do this.

Trying some physical activity

Start slowly by doing movements with your arms and legs while you’re sitting down. Then set yourself goals that are right for you. This could be walking about from room to room, going to the front door, to the garden, or going out for a short walk. You can gradually build up what you do.

Remember to take it slowly, use controlled breathing and match your breathing rhythm to your steps. You may find that you’re able to do a bit more each time. This will help you manage your everyday activities more comfortably. A physiotherapist can give you advice on the right type of physical activity for you. A pedometer or step counter can help you to gradually increase the amount of walking you do each week.


Keeping a diary and planning for when you are breathless

It can be helpful to keep a note of when your breathlessness has been difficult, activities that made it worse and what techniques you used to deal with it. You may find there are certain times of the day when you need more energy, such as in the morning when you’re getting dressed. Or you may find there are certain things that make your breathlessness worse, such as feeling stressed.

You can also use a diary to plan activities for times of the day when you feel better, and to remind you to practise controlled breathing and relaxation techniques.

Making a plan for when you are breathless

You may find it helpful to write down a plan for when you feel breathless. For example a resting position that you know helps, if you would like the fan to be turned on or the window opened. This helps any carers you have to be aware of things that help you.

‘I learnt to plan and do things in small bursts of activity. I just had to slow down in order to manage my breathing and fatigue.’

Helen


Sex and breathlessness

You may be worried about the impact of breathlessness on your sex life. If you have a partner, they may also be thinking about this. Sex requires energy and is demanding for the heart and lungs. It’s important to recognise this and make some changes. Here are a few suggestions that may help:

  • Be open with your partner about your concerns and what may help – this can help you both enjoy a fulfilling sex life.
  • Talking, hugging and touching are all important parts of intimacy that don’t use up too much energy.
  • Try to have sex when you’re feeling rested and your breathing is at its best.
  • You might find it helpful to have sex at a certain time of day – for example early evening rather than late at night.
  • Some positions use less energy. You may need to try different positions to keep breathlessness to a minimum. The British Lung Foundation has illustrations of suggested sexual positions for people with breathlessness.
  • Make sure you’re as relaxed as possible and take things slowly.
  • Sex after a heavy meal or alcohol might be more difficult as your stomach will be full. Alcohol can also affect your sexual function.
  • If you have oxygen at home, it may be helpful to use it before, during and after sexual activity.
  • If you feel breathless while having sex, pause and take a few deep, slow breaths from your lower chest, rather than stopping altogether.
  • Speak to your GP or specialist nurse at the hospital if you want any other advice. They can refer you to a sexual health counsellor.

We have information for men and women about sexuality and cancer.

Back to Breathlessness

Relaxation techniques

You may want to try using relaxation techniques to help you manage your anxiety and reduce breathlessness.