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.

An occupational therapist may be able to help you make changes around your home to make things easier for you. They may suggest grab rails or a raised toilet seat. They can also help you think about walking aids, such as a walking stick or wheelchair.

It’s helpful to be physically active as it 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 have an impact on your sex life. If you’re worried about these effects, talk to your GP about ways to manage them.

Managing everyday activities when you’re affected by breathlessness

Although it is beneficial to keep active, your everyday activities may feel overwhelming at times. It may be helpful to keep the following in mind before doing most activities:


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.

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 would be easier than you doing it. Most supermarkets offer online shopping and home delivery. You might also find 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’re affected by breathlessness

  • Think about ways to arrange your home to make tasks easier. For example, a chair in a hallway or on a stair landing could be used to take a 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, rather than having to bend or stretch to low or high 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 and don’t be afraid to ask for help from family and friends. If you live alone and are struggling, talk to your doctor about help that’s available.
  • Pushing rather than pulling a trolley is easier for some people and resting on the handle in a forward leaning posture 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.
  • A baby monitor is a good way of talking to someone in another room without having to shout or get up, especially at night.
  • A V-shaped pillow can help support you in a more upright position in bed.

Dressing when you’re affected by breathlessness

Remember to 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 covered for only a short time and you don’t have to raise your arms for too long.

Bathing and going to the toilet when you’re affected by breathlessness

  • If you have difficulty getting to the toilet, a urine bottle or commode can help. A district nurse can arrange this for you.
  • 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 and carry out an assessment to see what might help make things easier for you around your home.
  • 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 one leg in at a time. After bathing, let the water 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 and sit safely 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 use gentle controlled breathing from your tummy throughout.

Getting out and about

If you’re planning a day out somewhere unfamiliar, it may be helpful to get information in advance on things such as whether there’s a lift, parking and transport facilities and how far you will 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’s air conditioning. This can cause a dry mouth and 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 experience an episode of breathlessness.

When 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 in the next two steps.

Aids such as a walking stick, a wheeled frame or a wheelchair can be useful for 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 ShopmobilityMotability 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 won’t necessarily make you breathless, especially if you take it slowly and use controlled breathing as much as possible. At the same time, remember that getting breathless is not harmful.

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 to know when and how to do this.

Physical activity can help to improve your breathing and make you feel better. Even people with severe breathing problems can benefit from small amounts of physical activity.

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, whether that’s 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.

Diet and breathlessness

You may find that breathlessness causes problems with eating. If your appetite is poor, you can add high-protein powders to your normal food or you can 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 foods.
  • Try adding sauces or gravies to make food easier to eat.
  • Drink sips of fluid often, as 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.
  • Ready meals that can be stored in the freezer can help on days when preparing food feels too difficult.
  • A small alcoholic drink like sherry or brandy before a meal can help to improve your appetite.

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.

  • If your tongue is coated, try cleaning it gently with a soft toothbrush or cotton bud. Mouthwashes can also help.
  • Fizzy drinks can be a refreshing way to keep your mouth moist.
  • Sucking flavoured ice cubes or ice lollies can ease a dry mouth. Fresh pineapple chunks or melon can also help.
  • Keep your lips moist by using lip balm or Vaseline®.
  • Artificial saliva is available as gels, sprays, pastilles or lozenges and your doctor can prescribe these for you.

We have more information about eating problems and cancer.

Sexual relationships and breathlessness

You may be concerned 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 of the heart and lungs. It’s important to recognise this and make some adjustments.

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.
  • 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 influence 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.

Find out more 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.