There are a number of different medicines that can relieve breathlessness. You can discuss this with your GP or a doctor or nurse at the hospital.
Painkillers can sometimes be used to help relieve breathlessness. For example morphine can be taken in tablet or liquid form, or by injection under the skin.
Sedative drugs can help to relieve anxiety and panic, which some people experience because of their breathlessness.
Steroids can help reduce inflammation in the airways of the lungs, which then helps to reduce breathlessness.
Bronchodilator drugs widen the air passages and increase airflow. These medicines can be given in tablet form or through an inhaler. Spacer devices are often given with inhalers. These greatly improve the delivery of the drug to the lungs, making the medicines more effective when you are breathless.
These drugs can also be given through a nebuliser. A nebuliser is a small machine that turns the liquid drug into a fine mist, so you can breathe it deep into your lungs. A tube connects the machine to a face mask or a mouthpiece. You breathe through the mask or the mouthpiece to inhale the drug.
Sterile salt water (saline)
Sterile salt water can be given through a nebuliser to loosen sticky phlegm.
Diuretics are medicines which help you to pass more urine. They can help you get rid of excess fluid if your breathlessness is caused by a build-up of fluid in the lungs (pulmonary oedema).
If you find tablets difficult to swallow, discuss this with your GP or a nurse or doctor at the hospital. They can suggest different ways of giving you your medicine.
Oxygen treatment is only suitable for some people who are breathless. Using a fan or sitting by an open window with cool air blowing onto your face may give the same benefit. Your doctor will prescribe oxygen treatment if it might help you.
If you or someone at home smokes, oxygen cannot be prescribed because there is a risk of explosion and fire. You need to discuss this with the doctor who is prescribing oxygen. Smoking is not allowed in a house where there is home oxygen present.
If you only need oxygen for short periods of time, an oxygen cylinder may be recommended. This is a storage tank containing oxygen for you to breathe.
If you need oxygen for longer periods of time, you may have an oxygen concentrator. This is a larger machine that takes and filters oxygen from the surrounding air to supply to you.
With a cylinder or concentrator, you breathe in the oxygen using a face mask or through small tubes that sit under the nostrils (nasal cannula). Try using a water-based lubricant like KY Jelly® to stop your lips or nostrils becoming dry if you’re having this treatment.
If you want to go out but need oxygen, a bracket can be fitted to your wheelchair to carry the cylinder. Ask the wheelchair service about this.
If you’d like to travel when using oxygen, there are a few things to keep in mind. You can find out more about this from the British Lung Foundation or your local NHS service.
Finding a complementary therapy that helps you to relax may help you manage your breathlessness. Therapies such as acupuncture, aromatherapy and meditation may be helpful.
We have more information about cancer and complementary therapies.