Shortness of breath or suffocation can be frightening for everyone. Sometimes it is more due to sudden fear than the underlying respiratory cause. It is also called dyspnea is an uncomfortable condition that makes our lungs weak to get full air.
Shortness of breath, or breathlessness, occurs when a person has difficulty taking in enough air to breathe. It can range from mild to severe.
The medical term for shortness of breath is dyspnea. Despite being relatively common, it can be uncomfortable and distressing to experience.
What is shortness of breath?
Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is an uncomfortable condition that makes it difficult to get air into your lungs. Problems with your heart and lungs can harm your breathing.
Some people may experience shortness of breath suddenly for short periods. Others may experience it over the long term — several weeks or more.
You might find yourself short of breath if you:
- have a lung condition, like pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer, or COVID-19
- do intense exercise
- experience a change in temperature, for example, going from a warm room to the cold outdoors
- experience anxiety, panic, or severe stress
- are in an area with high levels of air pollution
- are at high altitude
- have obesity
- have cancer that affectsTrusted Source the lungs or are having cancer treatment, like chemotherapy
Sometimes breathlessness starts suddenly. In this case, it could quickly become a medical emergency that needs urgent attention. Possible causes include:
- carbon monoxide poisoning
- heart attack
- low blood pressure
- an asthma attack
- an allergic reaction
- a blood clot in the lungs, known as a pulmonary embolism
If anyone has concerns about their ability to breathe, they or someone else should seek emergency medical help. If breathing problems persist, they can lead to low oxygen levels in the blood, and this can soon become a life-threatening emergency.
In light of the 2020 COVID-19 pandemic, shortness of breath has become widely associated with this illness. Other common symptoms of COVID-19 include dry cough and fever.
Most people who develop COVID-19 will only experience mild symptoms. But you should seek emergency medical attention if you experience:
- trouble breathing
- persistent tightness in your chest
- blue lips
- mental confusion
If a medical emergency doesn’t cause your shortness of breath, you could try several types of home treatments that are effective at helping alleviate this condition. Many simply involve changing position, which can help relax your body and airways.
This is a simple way to control shortness of breath due to panic, COPD, or hyperventilation. It helps quickly slow your pace of breathing, which makes each breath deeper and more effective. If you’re very short of breath after exercising, you should seek medical help.
Pursed breathing helps empty the lungs of dead space air that occurs in COPD. It also helps release air trapped air from your lungs. You can use it any time you’re experiencing shortness of breath, especially during the difficult part of an activity, like bending, lifting objects, or climbing stairs.
To perform pursed lip breathing:
- Relax your neck and shoulder muscles.
- Slowly breathe in through your nose for two counts, keeping your mouth closed.
- Purse your lips as if you’re about to whistle.
- Breathe out slowly and gently through your pursed lips to the count of four.
Resting while sitting can help relax your body and make breathing easier.
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, leaning your chest slightly forward.
- Gently rest your elbows on your knees or hold your chin with your hands. Remember to keep your neck and shoulder muscles relaxed.
This position is a form of “tripod stance,” which aims to create more space in the chest cavity for the lungs. It’s helpful if you have COPD, and you may find you do it without thinking about it. It’s not suitable for people with high levels of obesity.
Sitting forward supported by a table
If you have both a chair and table to use, you may find this to be a slightly more comfortable sitting position in which to catch your breath.
- Sit in a chair with your feet flat on the floor, facing a table.
- Lean your chest slightly forward and rest your arms on the table.
- Rest your head on your forearms or on a pillow.
This position is another form of tripod breathing, which creates more space for the lungs in the chest.
Standing with supported back
Standing can also help relax your body and airways.
- Stand near a wall, facing away, and rest your hips on the wall.
- Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and rest your hands on your thighs.
- With your shoulders relaxed, lean slightly forward, and dangle your arms in front of you.
As with other forms of tripod breathing mentioned above, this position makes more space in the chest for your lungs.
Standing with supported arms
- Stand near a table or other flat, sturdy piece of furniture that’s just below the height of your shoulder.
- Rest your elbows or hands on the piece of furniture, keeping your neck relaxed.
- Rest your head on your forearms and relax your shoulders.
In the classic “tripod” position, you can do this by placing a cane on the floor in front of you and leaning on it with both hands.
Sleeping in a relaxed position
People with sleep apnea experience shortness of breath while they sleep. This can lead to waking up frequently, which can diminish the quality and duration of your sleep.
Try lying on your side with a pillow between your legs and your head elevated by pillows, keeping your back straight. Or lie on your back with your head elevated, and your knees bent, with a pillow under your knees.
Both of these positions help your body and airways relax, making breathing easier. Have your doctor assess you for sleep apnea and use a CPAP machine if recommended.
Diaphragmatic breathing can also help manage shortness of breath.
To try this breathing style:
- Sit in a chair with bent knees and relaxed shoulders, head, and neck.
- Place your hand on your belly.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose. You should feel your belly moving under your hand.
- As you exhale, tighten your muscles. You should feel your belly fall inward. Breathe out through your mouth with pursed lips.
- Put more emphasis on the exhale than the inhale. Keep exhaling for longer than usual before slowly inhaling again.
- Repeat for about 5 minutes.
A 2019 study found that combining these breathing strategies helped expand chest volume in a group of people with COPD and reduced the number of breaths they needed to take.
Using a fan
Various experts recommend using a fan to blow cool air and help relieve shortness of breath, and some older research supports this. Pointing a small handheld fan toward your face may help your symptoms.
Findings published in 2018 found using a fan helped people who had difficulty breathing due to late-stage cancer.
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Breathing in deeply through the abdomen can help someone manage their breathlessness. To try deep breathing at home, people can:
- Lie down and place the hands on the abdomen.
- Breathe in deeply through the nose, expanding the abdomen and letting the lungs fill with air.
- Hold the breath for a couple of seconds.
- Breathe out slowly through the mouth, emptying the lungs.
People can do this exercise several times per day or as often as they experience shortness of breath. It is best to keep breathing slowly, easily, and deeply rather than quickly.
People can also try other types of deep breathing exercise, such as diaphragmatic breathing.
That said, the quality of evidence behind deep breathing exercises for shortness of breath is limited , and research is ongoing.
There are also some risks associated with performing deep breathing exercises incorrectly. Indeed, research suggests that when a person performs them incorrectly, these exercises can be more harmful than helpful.
For example, in some people with severe chronic respiratory conditions, deep breathing exercises can lead to hyperinflation, which occurs when an increase in lung volume prevents efficient airflow in the body.
Other risks include reduced strength of the diaphragm and increased shortness of breath.
If possible, perform these exercises with the help of a trained medical professional to reduce potential risks.
Inhaling steam can help keep a person’s nasal passages clear, which can help them breathe more easily. Heat and moisture from steam may also break down mucus in the lungs, which might also reduce breathlessness.
To try steam inhalation at home, a person can:
- Fill a bowl with very hot water.
- Add a few drops of peppermint or eucalyptus essential oil.
- Position the face over the bowl, and place a towel over the head.
- Take deep breaths, inhaling the steam.
People should leave the water to cool slightly if it has just boiled. Otherwise, the steam could scald the skin on the face.
Drinking black coffee
Drinking black coffee may help ease breathlessness, as the caffeine in it can reduce tightness in the muscles in a person’s airway.
A review from 2010 reported that caffeine’s effects slightly improve the way the airway functions in people with asthma. This can be enough to make it easier for them to take in air.
However, it is important to remember that drinking too much coffee can increase a person’s heart rate. People should watch their caffeine intake when trying this remedy to make sure that they do not drink too much.
Eating fresh ginger
Eating fresh ginger, or adding some to hot water as a drink, may help reduce shortness of breath that occurs due to a respiratory infection.
One study suggests that ginger may be effective in fighting the respiratory syncytial virus, which is a common cause of respiratory infections.
Identifying and reducing triggers
Depending on the cause of the breathlessness, there may be some changes that a person can make to their lifestyle to avoid their triggers and ease their symptoms.
These changes include:
- losing weight, if obesity is the cause of the breathing problems
- exercising, to improve fitness levels
- avoiding exercise in hot conditions or at high altitudes
- quitting smoking or avoiding secondhand smoke
- avoiding allergens and pollutants
- sticking to treatment plans for any underlying conditions
When to see a doctor
Some people experience mild shortness of breath regularly and may receive a diagnosis from a doctor. If a doctor has already diagnosed the cause, trying one of the home remedies above can be a safe course of action.
When someone experiences shortness of breath for the first time without knowing why, however, they should speak to a doctor. Only a doctor can provide a proper diagnosis.
In some cases, shortness of breath is a cause for immediate concern. A person should seek medical attention straight away if they are experiencing sudden, severe shortness of breath or a feeling of pain or tightness in the chest.
Experiencing shortness of breath can be unsettling. Various home remedies can help, including breathing exercises, certain positions, and inhaling steam.
If a person is concerned about shortness of breath or does not know the cause, they should speak to a doctor for advice.