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Breathlessness – How can it be managed while living with a lung disease?

03 January 2017

Breathlessness can be a very difficult symptom to live with. Breathlessness caused by lung disease can feel different for everyone. You might get breathless after physical activity such as walking your dog, climbing a flight of stairs, or even while talking to a loved one.

What is breathlessness?

Everyone can feel out of breath at some point each day, such as after heavy physical activity or exertion. This is the kind of breathlessness that you might expect after such activity, and can be controlled.

Other times, however, you may become breathless quite unexpectedly and find it difficult or uncomfortable to breathe – breathlessness that you feel you can’t control.

Whether it comes out of the blue or occurs every day, this kind of breathlessness can seem frightening. Being breathless can be hard to live with. It can make you feel tired and as though everything is a struggle. Some days may seem harder than others, but there are ways for you to learn to manage and cope with your breathlessness.

Making sure that your doctor knows that you are suffering from breathlessness when not exerting yourself can be extremely helpful and beneficial for you. It may lead to the discovery of an underlying condition and your doctor or another health professional may be able to give you advice and techniques on handling your breathing.

Changing how you breathe

When you are breathless you may find that:

  • You breathe faster
  • Your shoulders tense up

You may feel that doing these two things can help you, but over a long period it can make it harder and more tiring for you to breathe. You should try to control your breathing. It can help if you think about:

  • Breathing in slowly through your nose
  • Breathing out through your mouth

This can almost feel like you are performing a relaxation exercise. As you breathe out, try to relax your shoulders. It can help if you have someone to gently press on your shoulders as you do this. With practice you should notice that you are breathing more deeply as well as more slowly.

Breathing techniques

Various breathing techniques can help a person control their respiratory rate and breathing pattern, which can be useful to some sufferers of asbestos-related diseases when coping with their symptoms.

Asbestos-related diseases such as asbestosis, pleural thickening and mesothelioma can cause shortness of breath and affects the efficiency of the lungs. The diseases occur in individuals who have had exposure to high levels of asbestos dust and fibres over many years. The asbestos fibres permanently damage the lungs, which can make it more difficult to breathe.

Breathing techniques and correct posture can improve the function of the respiratory muscles and the effectiveness of coughs. Daily breathing exercise can ease shortness of breath, help the lungs work more efficiently and make a person feel like enough air is getting into their lungs.

It is best for patients to receive an expert medical opinion before starting any form of breathing exercises and often patients will be referred to pulmonary rehabilitation experts through their treatment consultant or GP.

Some examples of breathing exercise techniques that may help include:

Pursed-lip breathing

Pursed-lip breathing will slow down your breathing so that it is more efficient (breathing fast only makes shortness of breath worse). You can do this kind of breathing anywhere.

  • Breathe in slowly through your nose. Hold your breath for 3 seconds
  • Purse your lips as if you are going to whistle
  • Breathe out slowly through your pursed lips for 6 seconds

Expansion of the lower chest

The aim of this technique is to allow fresh air into the lungs and to get rid of old air. Try to imagine that you are breathing out for twice as long as you breathe in. This will make room for the fresh air and also helps to slow down the speed of your breathing. Try to keep the shoulders and the upper chest relaxed and easy. Feel as if the air is going down to your stomach and imagine that the breathing is taking place there.

  • Place your hands on either side of your chest
  • Breathe out through your mouth, letting your ribs sink in as far as possible
  • Then, breathing in through your nose or mouth, feel your ribs expand outwards towards your hands
  • Gently breathe out to start again
  • Try to repeat the exercise about five or six times

Abdominal/ diaphragm breathing

Abdominal breathing also slows down your breathing and helps relax your entire body.

  • Lie on your back in a comfortable position with a pillow under your head and knees
  • Rest one hand on your abdomen just below your rib cage. Rest the other hand on your chest
  • Slowly breathe in and out through your nose using your abdominal muscles. The hand resting on your abdomen will rise when you breathe in and fall when you breathe out. The hand on your chest should be almost still
  • Repeat three or four times before resting

Can cool air aid you when breathless?

Medical professionals believe that cool air can create a response in the nerves of the face, which stimulates a similar response as to when people dive into cold water, prompting the body to conserve oxygen.

Results from one study of 50 patients with long-term breathlessness, which was published in the Journal of Pain and Symptom Management, showed that symptoms were reduced by more than a third within minutes of having cool air being blown towards the face.

The doctors at the Breathlessness Intervention Service at Addenbrooke’s Hospital in Cambridge found this method to be so effective that they began providing their patients with a basic handheld fan when they were referred to the clinic. The fans can be used to blow cold air against their faces when they felt like they were breathless.

Further reading

British Lung Foundation – Support for breathlessness

Have you had a persistent cough for 3 weeks or more? Tell your doctor.

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