What is breathlessness?

Getting out of breath is normal. It’s a natural response when your body needs more oxygen and energy when you do something that requires physical effort. For example when you run for a bus. Getting out of breath when we exercise is a positive reaction and is part of keeping our bodies fit and strong.

Chronic or long-term breathlessness

Some people get out of breath every day when they’re not physically exerting themselves. They unexpectedly find it difficult or uncomfortable to breathe, and may feel they can’t control their breathing. This long-term breathlessness is known as chronic breathlessness. It often develops gradually and lasts for weeks, months or years. Sometimes people also cough, bring up phlegm or feel wheezy.

Many people think chronic means ‘bad’. But it means ‘long-term’.

Acute breathlessness

If you get out of breath suddenly and unexpectedly for a short time, this is called acute breathlessness. Acute breathlessness usually needs to be tested or treated straight away. The sooner you get treatment, the better you’ll recover. If you have an underlying condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases (COPD) or asthma, this can include starting treatment yourself following an action plan agreed with your health care professional.

How we feel when we get out of breath

Breathlessness is not only a physical symptom. It’s also a feeling that affects the way we think and act. We each feel it differently: 

  • You may feel hot, panicky or overwhelmed. 
  • Your chest might feel so tight it feels like the breath cannot get in.
  • You might feel you’re suffocating or not being able to get enough air and you feel you need to take deep breaths but can’t. 
  • You might feel breathing is very hard work, and exhausting. 

When I walk with my husband and our dog, sometimes I have a determined effort to speed up a little. I know I should let myself get out of breath, but then my chest tightens. I feel I am breathing against a wall and the wheezing and coughing start.Margaret

How breathing and feeling about breathing interact

Getting out of breath can be frightening and make all of us feel anxious. That anxiety or fear can increase how breathless we feel. As we get more anxious, we may become more aware of our breathing, breathe faster and tense up our breathing muscles. This can lead to a panic attack.

The embarrassment comes when you are with fit and well people who do not realise that terror can strike you anytime especially when anxiety exacerbates the situation. Wendy

Controlling your breathing

Learning to stay calm when you get breathless will help you to feel in control of your breathing. Breathing techniques can help you slow down and control your breathing. You may also find relaxation techniques or mindfulness help to ease feelings of tension and anxiety.

There’s also professional help. Lots of research has linked breathlessness with feelings of anxiety and depression. There’s evidence that therapies such as cognitive behavioural therapy (CBT) help to improve breathlessness, and anxiety and depression linked to it. If your area doesn't have a dedicated breathlessness clinic that provides this help, ask your GP to refer you to a counsellor or clinical psychologist.

Sometimes medicines can help too, so talk to your GP about this.

Next: Causes of breathlessness >

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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.