There are few things worse than feeling like you can't breathe. We've all experienced it from time to time, whether it was in gym class when we were children or when we ran up the stairs. But sometimes shortness of breath is caused by illnesses, such as the flu (influenza) or pneumonia, or chronic illnesses like asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. So, how can you find treatments for shortness of breath that will help ease your symptoms?
When Your Breathing Difficulty Is Chronic
If shortness of breath is caused by a disease or condition, it should be easier to breathe once your illness has been diagnosed and treatment has started. However, if you still experience difficulty breathing, here are some lifestyle changes that might help make it easier to breathe.
- Quitting smoking may be one of your best bets to ease your breathing. The irritation from cigarette smoking can increase coughing and shortness of breath.
- Manage your weight. Excess weight can make it difficult to breathe properly. If you're overweight, speak with your doctor about weight loss options.
- Pollutants, allergens, and irritants in the air can make it difficult to breathe, so avoid these whenever possible.
- Watch your elevation. People who aren't used to higher elevations, particularly at about 5,000 feet or higher, can find it hard to breathe. If you must go to higher elevations, speak with your doctor about ways to minimize the impact.
- Elevate the head of your bed so your head is higher than the rest of your body. You can achieve this by placing blocks under the feet at the head of your bed or by placing a foam wedge underneath your mattress — simply using extra pillows may put your neck and body in bad alignment.
- Practice good posture. Slumping constricts your lungs. If you do feel the need to lean forward while sitting, put your elbows on your thighs. This position helps keep your upper body straight and gives your lungs room to expand.
- Practice stomach breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing. Relax your shoulders, neck, and head. Place your hand on your stomach so you can feel it rise and fall. Breathe in slowly through your nose and feel your stomach slowly rise. Exhale slowly through pursed lips, allowing your stomach to fall. Stretch out the exhalation so it lasts longer than the inhalation. Relax and repeat.
When Your Breathing Difficulty Needs Medical Intervention
If lifestyle changes don't offer you enough relief, your doctor may recommend other treatments for shortness of breath.
Medications called bronchodilators can be inhaled through a device called an inhaler or a puffer. The medication is delivered right to your lungs. Some medications are long-term and work to prevent shortness of breath. Others are emergency medications, which you inhale when you experience sudden shortness of breath.
Medications like prednisone help decrease inflammation in your lungs. These medications are usually short-term treatments, but the length of time varies from person to person.
Supplemental oxygen can be used all day long or only at night or at rest, depending on the severity of your breathing difficulty. This involves having a canister of oxygen and tubing with a mask or nasal cannula (a tube that fits just under your nose). The canister will deliver oxygen directly to your nose and mouth, giving you higher concentrations than you get by breathing room air.
A pulmonary rehabilitation program is usually an outpatient program offered in a hospital or clinic.
Shortness of breath does not occur without cause, so you should always consult with a doctor if you suddenly become short of breath or your usual level of breathing worsens. It's especially imperative to seek medical attention if it's accompanied by symptoms like wheezing, swelling in your ankles and feet, fever or chills, lips or fingertips turning blue, or continued difficulty while lying down or after using a prescribed inhaler.
If you're interested in a pulmonary rehabilitation program, look for one in your area.