What is breathlessness?
Feeling short of breath from time to time is healthy and normal – but sometimes it can be a sign of something more serious. On this page, we explain the different types of breathlessness, how breathing and thoughts about breathlessness interact and where you can get support for your breathlessness.
On this page:
- Chronic or long-term breathlessness
- Acute breathlessness
- How we feel when we get out of breath
- How breathing and thoughts about breathing interact
- Controlling your breathing
- Support for your 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 part of keeping our bodies fit and strong.
But some people get out of breath whether or not they’re physically exerting themselves. They unexpectedly find it difficult or uncomfortable to breathe and may feel they can’t control their breathing.
Sometimes this kind of breathlessness is long term and people experience it most days. This long-term breathlessness is known as chronic breathlessness. It develops gradually and lasts for weeks, months or years. Sometimes people also cough, bring up phlegm or feel wheezy.
To many people, chronic means ‘bad’. But it actually means ‘long-term’.
If you get out of breath suddenly and unexpectedly, this is called acute breathlessness. Acute breathlessness needs to be tested or treated straight away as it can be a sign of a new medical condition. If you or someone you are with is having difficulty breathing, don’t delay getting help. Call your GP for an urgent appointment or NHS 111 if your GP surgery is closed. But in an emergency, call 999 for immediate medical attention.
If you have chronic breathlessness caused by an underlying condition like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or asthma, you may be able to help yourself feel less acutely breathless by starting treatment yourself by following an action plan agreed with your health care professional.
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 you can’t breathe in properly
- You might feel you’re suffocating, and 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
Getting out of breath can be frightening and make you feel anxious. That anxiety or fear can increase how breathless you feel. As we get more anxious, we may become more aware of our breathing, breathe faster and tense our breathing muscles. This can lead to a panic attack.
It’s embarrassing because when you appear fit and well, people don’t realise that terror can strike you at anytime, especially when anxiety exacerbates the situation. Wendy
To gain control of your breathing, you can:
- Sit down in a quiet place and think about your breathing. Concentrate on slow, regular breathing.
- Use a ‘re-breathing’ technique. Cup your hands together and put them over your nose and mouth. Then, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth. You can use a paper (never plastic) bag over your mouth and nose, instead of your hands.
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.
Some of the following thoughts may help you to feel less breathless:
- I have had this feeling before
- I know it will go away
- I am going to lean forward
- I am going to use my handheld fan
- I am going to relax my shoulder and neck muscles and allow them to “flop” and “drop”
- I can do this – I am doing it now and I am OK
You may also find relaxation techniques or mindfulness help to ease your feelings of tension and anxiety. The NHS has a list of things you can try to help with anxiety, fear and panic on their website.
Getting out of breath can be very frightening. You may feel anxious about it or feel embarrassed that other people might notice. The good news is that you can get help. Your GP can make a plan with you to manage your breathlessness. You can learn to control your breathing.
It’s good to talk to other people about your fears and worries. Your friends and family can help to support you if they understand more about what you’re going through.
There’s also professional help. 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. You could also ask to be referred to a respiratory physiotherapist. Sometimes medicines can help too, so talk to your GP about this.
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 the anxiety and depression that might be linked to it.
We have information online about dealing with anxiety and depression if you live with a long-term lung condition.
Why am I short of breath?
Feeling out of breath can be a symptom of many conditions, so it's important to get it checked out. Find out more about why you could be short of breath.
Diagnosing the cause of breathlessness
Find out how the causes breathlessness is diagnosed. We explain what will happen when you see your doctor, the questions they might ask, tests they’ll do and how long it will take to get a diagnosis.