Managing everyday life with breathlessness

When you are breathless, normal activities can feel overwhelming. Some of the following tips may also help.

Prioritise and plan ahead

When you are breathless, normal activities can feel overwhelming.

Save your energy for the things that most need doing, or are most important to you.

Ask family or friends to help if you can. Do everything the easiest way possible. Give yourself extra time to do things, so you are not rushed or stressed.

It may make some tasks easier if you plan ahead. You might also find tasks are easier at certain times of day.

It can help to write a diary to help you see any patterns in when you are more or less breathless. You can use this to plan ahead, so you can do the things at times when you are likely to find them easier.

Around the house

You may be eligible for grants to make changes to your house or for extra pieces of equipment. An OT or physiotherapist can also give you practical help and advice.

The following may help:

  • Rearrange your home to make tasks easier. For example, it might help to put a chair in a hallway or landing, so you can rest when walking between rooms.
  • Sit down to do tasks like washing, dressing or preparing food.
  • Arrange your kitchen so the things you use often are at waist height.
  • Hold on to a secure piece of furniture when picking things up. And use a grabbing stick or reacher to get things rather than bending over. An OT can give you advice.
  • Your physiotherapist may suggest a mobility aid, for example a walking frame (Zimmer frame). Some come with baskets, so you do not have to carry things.
  • Try to push rather than pull a trolley. Resting on the handle in a forward-leaning position may also help.
  • Keep a phone close by. Tell people who call you often that they need to give you plenty of time to answer.
  • Put lots of pillows behind you in bed to help support you in a more upright position. You can ask a physiotherapist which positions are best for you.

Getting dressed

The following may help when getting dressed:

  • Sit down when you are getting dressed and choose loose-fitting clothes. Bring your feet up to put on socks, tights and shoes, as bending at the waist can make you breathless. Slip-on shoes are easier to get on and off.
  • When you take clothes off over your head, take your arms out first, then quickly slip the clothes over your head. This means your face is only covered for a short time.

Having a bath or shower

The following may help when having a bath or shower:

  • When having a bath or shower, open a window or leave the door slightly open.
  • Keep the water warm but not too hot, as this can make you breathless.
  • If you are having a bath, sit at the side of the bath and slowly lift in one leg at a time. After your bath, you may find it easier to kneel up first and rest before standing up.
  • If you are having a 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 is enough space.

Going to the toilet

If you find it hard to get to the toilet, the following tips can help:

  • Use a urine bottle or commode (portable toilet seat and bowl). A district nurse can arrange this for you.
  • Aids such as grab rails, a raised toilet seat and a bath board can make going to the toilet and bathing easier. An OT can help with this.
  • If you are having problems pooing (constipation), get this treated quickly. Straining can make breathlessness worse.

Diet and breathlessness

If you are not managing to eat enough, you can add high-protein powders to your food, to add calories. You can also try adding some nutritious, high-calorie drinks. Your GP or dietitian can prescribe these for you.

Here are some other tips:

  • Smaller meals on a smaller plate are easier to manage.
  • Eat slowly and take smaller mouthfuls.
  • Avoid chewy food. Add sauces or gravies to make food easier to eat.
  • Ready meals can help on days when making food feels too difficult.
  • A small alcoholic drink like sherry or brandy before a meal can help your appetite.

Dry mouth

Being breathless can make you breathe through your mouth more than your nose. This can make your mouth and tongue dry, which can leave a bad taste. We have more information about coping with mouth problems.

Going out

The following may help when going out:

  • Get some information before you go. You might want to find out if there is a lift, parking, transport links, and how far you will have to walk.
  • The air in some places may be drier. Taking a small bottle of water with you can help.
  • Keep a handheld fan with you to help if you get breathless.
  • If the air is cold outside, it can help to put a scarf across your mouth to warm the air and add moisture to it.
  • When you are walking outside, go slowly and use controlled breathing.
  • A walking stick, Zimmer frame or wheelchair can be useful. Your nurse, physiotherapist or OT can arrange these for you.
  • You can hire wheelchairs from the British Red Cross. Your local shopping centre or supermarket may also have wheelchairs you can borrow while you are there.

Physical activity

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

If your breathlessness starts to get worse or gets worse quickly, make sure you see a doctor straight away. There may be a new cause for your breathlessness that needs treatment quickly.

Trying some physical activity

Start slowly by doing movements with your arms and legs while you are sitting down. Then set yourself goals that are right for you. For example, you might aim to walk from room to room, or to the garden. You can slowly build up what you do.

Remember to go slowly, use controlled breathing and match your breathing rhythm to your steps. A physiotherapist can give you advice on the right type of physical activity for you.

Some hospitals and hospices have breathlessness services or rehabilitation programmes. They run exercise programmes specially for people with breathlessness.

Sex and breathlessness

You may be worried about how being breathless may affect your sex life. If you have a partner, they may also be thinking about this. Sex takes energy and is tiring for the heart and lungs. It is important to recognise this and make some changes. Here are some tips that may help:

  • Be open with your partner about your worries 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 do not take too much energy.
  • Try to have sex when you are feeling rested and your breathing is at its best.
  • You might find it easier to have sex at a certain time of day, such as early evening rather than late at night.
  • Some positions use less energy. You may need to try different positions to find what suits you best. The British Lung Foundation has illustrations of suggested sexual positions for people with breathlessness.
  • Make sure you are as relaxed as possible and take things slowly.
  • Sex after a big 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.

Who can help

Many different people can help you and your family and friends manage the problems that breathlessness can cause. These include:

  • your GP
  • clinical nurse specialist
  • physiotherapist
  • occupational therapist (OT)
  • dietitian.

Community support

Specialist nurses called palliative care nurses (sometimes called Macmillan nurses) are experienced in managing symptoms. If you have a local cancer centre, they may also have a hospice or palliative care team that can offer you specialist help with your breathing. Some hospitals have a specialist team for helping managing breathlessness.

Booklets and resources

Date reviewed

Reviewed: 03 January 2019
Next review: 03 January 2022

This content is currently being reviewed. New information will be coming soon.

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