Breathlessness

Treating breathlessness

On this page, we explain the different treatments that might help improve your breathlessness. Your GP can prescribe treatments or refer you to services to improve your breathlessness.

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR)

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

For more about PR and keeping active more generally, take a look at our keeping active information.

Inhaled medication

Some breathlessness is treated with inhalers. If you’re prescribed inhalers, it’s very important you use your inhaler correctly to get the full benefit. Make sure your health care professional teaches you how to use your inhaler, and once a year checks you use it correctly. You can also check how to use your inhaler online on our sister charity’s website Asthma UK.

Ask your pharmacist, nurse or doctor 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.

 

Tablets, capsules and liquids

Medicines that you swallow, in the form of tablets, capsules or liquids can work for some lung conditions, but may have side effects such as nausea, vomiting or constipation. Make sure you have a clear written plan from your health care professional to explain what you are taking and why.

Some tablets help to open up the airways, some may help you 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 to 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 a lung condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or bronchiectasis, you might have a rescue pack of medication to keep at home. This is to help you to start treatment quickly if your symptoms flare up. A rescue pack may contain antibiotics to treat bacterial infections that cause your sputum to change colour and steroid tablets to tackle the inflammation in your lungs.

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

Stopping smoking

If you smoke, the best thing you can do for your breathlessness is to quit. Your health care professional and pharmacist can help you find ways that make it easier for you. You’re around three times as likely to quit with help from support services and medication. We have more information online to help you quit smoking.

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 information (PDF, 582KB)

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Download our breathlessness information (PDF, 582KB)

Last medically reviewed: November 2020. Due for review: November 2023

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.