Breathlessness

Are there treatments for breathlessness?

Your health care professional can prescribe treatments or refer you to services to improve your lung function.

If you smoke, get help to quit

If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is to quit. Your health care professional and pharmacist can help you find ways that make it easier for you. You’re four times as likely to quit with help from support services and medication.

Pulmonary rehabilitation

If you have a lung condition, your health care professional may suggest pulmonary rehabilitation (PR). If you have chronic heart failure, PR may also help. If you have other heart problems there are cardiac rehabilitation services too. A PR programme will help you control your breathlessness, make you fitter and are fun. There’s good evidence PR helps to reduce breathlessness and to improve your general wellbeing.

Inhaled medication

Some breathlessness is treated with inhalers. Some control inflammation in the lungs. Others help relax the muscles around your airways so they can open wider. Some inhalers work quickly and are taken often. Others work for 12 or 24 hours and you take them once or twice a day.

It’s very important to use your inhaler correctly to get the full benefit. Make sure your health care professional teaches you how to use your inhaler, and regularly checks you use it correctly. Ask your doctor or nurse to write down how to manage your condition with inhalers, and use them as prescribed. Ask to try different types if you feel the one you have isn’t helping.

Spacers

If you’re given a spacer to use with your inhaler, try to use it. Spacers – large empty plastic containers you fix to your inhaler – help to get more medication straight into your lungs.

Using an inhaler and spacer

Someone using a spacer

 

Tablets, capsules and liquids

Tablets, capsules or liquids to control your breathing can work for some lung conditions, but may have side effects such as nausea, vomiting or constipation. Make sure you have a written plan you understand from your health care professional to explain what you are taking and why.

Some tablets help open up the airways, some may help clear sputum and some control allergic processes that contribute to your lung condition. Medicines can control your blood pressure or heart rhythm, increase the pumping strength of your heart or help your body get rid of excess fluid. If your breathlessness is due to heart failure you might need to adjust your treatment according to your weight and how much your ankles swell.

Rescue pack

If you have some lung conditions, such as COPD or bronchiectasis, you might have a rescue pack of medication to keep at home. This is to help you start treatment quickly if your symptoms flare up. For example, antibiotics treat bacterial infections that cause your sputum to change colour and steroid tablets tackle the inflammation in your lungs making you breathless and wheezy. 

Your health care professional will explain when and how to take this rescue pack. Agree a written plan with them. Let your doctor know as soon as you start the pack and get an appointment to be seen.

Get your vaccinations

Flu and pneumonia vaccines aim to reduce the risk of a chest infection.

  • Get a flu jab every year.
  • Ask your doctor about getting the one-off pneumonia jab.

Can oxygen help?

Oxygen treatment won’t help your breathlessness if your blood oxygen levels are normal. But if the level of oxygen in your blood is low, your GP can refer you to a specialist team to assess your needs. Never use oxygen without specialist advice.

Find out more about treatments for:

Next: How to manage your breathlessness >

Download our breathlessness PDF (704 KB)

Last medically reviewed: November 2017. Due for review: November 2020

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.