Treatment for breathlessness

If you experience breathlessness, there are treatments that may help you. They may include medicines, oxygen treatment and complementary therapies. Treatments may help:

  • relieve breathlessness
  • reduce anxiety and panic
  • reduce inflammation in the lungs
  • widen air passages and increase airflow
  • loosen sticky phlegm
  • reduce excess fluid in the lungs.

Medicines can be given in lots of ways, including as tablets, injections and inhalers. Let your doctor or nurse know if you have trouble swallowing so they can find another way to give you your treatment.

There are lots of people who can help you manage your breathlessness.

  • Your clinical nurse specialist can advise you on ways to cope with breathlessness.
  • Physiotherapists can teach you breathing techniques and easier ways of doing day-to-day activities.
  • An occupational therapist can help you find easier ways to do tasks at home and may be able to give you gadgets to help with household chores.
  • A dietitian can give you advice about which foods are easier to eat when you are breathless.

Medicines for breathlessness

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 

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 

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

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.

Complementary therapies

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.

Who can help with breathlessness?

Many people are available to help you and your family manage the problems that breathlessness can cause.

Clinical nurse specialist

A clinical nurse specialist can give you practical advice and refer you to other members of the health care team to help you manage your breathlessness in the most effective way. Clinical nurse specialists can also help you find possible support groups in your area.


Physiotherapists can help you learn breathing techniques. They can offer expert advice on gentle exercise and relaxation, and show you new ways of carrying out day-to-day activities that may be causing you problems.

Occupational therapists

Occupational therapists can help you develop ways of completing tasks and activities at home that are safe and prevent you from getting too breathless. They may be able to give you simple but effective gadgets that can make everyday chores easier to manage. They can also offer expert advice about relaxation and how to pace your daily activities.


Dietitians can give practical advice on food that makes eating easier when you’re breathless. They can also look at your nutritional needs and prescribe supplement drinks if you struggle to eat enough solid food every day.

District nurses

Different people can offer support in the community. District nurses work closely with GPs and, if needed, can make regular visits to patients and their families at home.

Palliative care nurses

In many areas of the country there are also specialist nurses called palliative care nurses. They’re experienced in assessing and treating your symptoms, and they can offer you support from when you’re diagnosed with cancer. They can also visit you at home and support you and your family. 

Some palliative care nurses are linked to the local hospice. Your GP can usually arrange for you to be seen by a specialist nurse at home. Your local hospice or palliative care team at your cancer centre may be able to offer you specialist help with your breathing – sometimes they will have a specialist team for this symptom.

Palliative care nurses are sometimes referred to as Macmillan nurses. However, many Macmillan professionals are nurses who have specialist knowledge about a particular type of cancer. You may see them when you’re at a clinic or in hospital.

Marie Curie nurses

Marie Curie nurses help to care for people who are having treatment to control their symptoms and want to stay in their own homes. They provide nursing care during the day and overnight. The district nurse usually decides whether to request a Marie Curie nurse.

Hospital social workers

The hospital social worker can give you information about social services and other benefits you may be able to claim. For example, you may be entitled to meals-on-wheels, a home helper or money to help with hospital transport fares. The social worker may also be able to help arrange childcare during and after treatment and, if necessary, help with the cost of childminders.

Back to Cancer and breathlessness

Breathlessness and its causes

There are several reasons why you might feel breathless. Your doctor can talk to you about the cause in your situation.

Relaxation techniques

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