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Research studies suggest that a cool draft of air from a handheld fan can help reduce the feeling of breathlessness in a patient.

The study, ‘Does the use of a handheld fan improve chronic dyspnea? A randomized, controlled, crossover trial’ (2010), recommends the technique as part of a palliative management strategy for reducing breathlessness associated with advanced disease.

The study supports anecdotal evidence that a handheld fan directed to the face reduces the sensation of breathlessness.

Ruth Thomas, Specialist Respiratory Nurse based in Milton Keynes, says: “I frequently use handheld fans during pulmonary rehabilitation sessions, giving them to patients who are very breathless after a cardiac exercise, aids recovery time even quicker than use of inhalers. Patients who benefit are advised to use as needed whenever more breathless than usual to help regain breathing control.”

The same relief can be replicated by desktop or standing fans, an open window or a cool flannel compressed against the face.

Handheld fans infograph

How to use the handheld fan to relieve breathlessness?

It is important to check with a GP, respiratory consultant, respiratory nurse, respiratory physiotherapist or other qualified medical professional before a patient uses the fan technique.

When a patient feels breathless after any physical activity, anxiety or stress they should:

  • Find a comfortable place to stop and rest. This could be in a chair and leaning forward on the elbows; sitting and resting forward on a table top; or standing and leaning forward on a kitchen worktop, back of a chair or even a shopping trolley.
  • Turn the handheld fan on and position it six inches or 15 cm (about the distance from the outstretched tip of the forefinger to the top of the thumb) from the face.
  • Ensure that the air from the fan blows towards the central part of the face. The cool draught should be felt around the sides of the nose and across the patient’s top lip.
  • The position should be held and the fan used until the patient regains control of their breathing. This could be a few minutes through to 10 minutes. The time varies depending on the patient.

It may benefit the patient to use the fan while employing other methods of breathlessness management such as breathing techniques, relaxation and mindfulness. The fan technique can also be used at the same time as nasal oxygen.

There are on-going studies and further research projects investigating the effectiveness of the technique and how it works. At the moment it is thought that cooling the cheeks, nose and mouth sends a message to the brain which reduces the feeling of breathlessness. It may stimulate a similar response as to when people dive into cold water, prompting the body to conserve oxygen.

Whatever the reason why the handheld fan technique works and eases breathlessness, it is a safe and simple way to help patients. The fans are inexpensive, portable, enhance self-efficacy and give the patient some sense of control over their breathing.

Breathlessness is a key symptom of the asbestos-related diseases pleural thickening, asbestosis, pleural fibrosis, lung cancer and mesothelioma. Simply walking from one room to the next or tying a shoelace can leave a sufferer struggling to breath. It has a huge impact on the quality of life of sufferers and any safe technique that can help should be used to help patients.

Research references

Galbraith S, Fagan P, Perkins P, Lynch A, Booth S. Does the use of a handheld fan improve chronic dyspnea? A randomized, controlled, crossover trial. Journal of Pain & Symptom Management 2010; 39 (5):831-838.
Richard M. Schwartzstein, Karen Lahive, Alan Pope, Steven E. Weinberger, and J. Woodrow Weiss. Cold Facial Stimulation Reduces Breathlessness Induced in Normal Subjects. American Review of Respiratory Disease 1986; 10.1164/ajrccm/136.1.58.
Amy P. Abernethy, Christine F. McDonald, Peter A. Frith, Katherine Clark, James E. Herndon, Jennifer Marcello, Iven H. Young, Janet Bull, Andrew Wilcock, Sara Booth, Jane L. Wheeler, James A. Tulsky, Alan J. Crockett, and David C. Currow. Effect of palliative oxygen versus medical (room) air in relieving breathlessness in patients with refractory dyspnea: a double-blind randomized controlled trial. Lancet. 2010 Sep 4; 376(9743): 784–793.

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