Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath, also known as breathlessness or dyspnoea, is a feeling of not being able to get enough air to breathe.  This can be caused by the cancer, side effects from cancer treatments, or other health problems.

It is important to find out what is causing the shortness of breath and how it can be treated.

If you have a sudden shortness breath that makes it difficult to talk, with or without chest pain, you need medical attention.  

Use the contact numbers you have been given. If you can’t get hold of anyone, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for assessment.

Be prepared

Know what to expect

There are many reasons why people with cancer can get short of breath. Ask your doctor if this is likely to happen to you and what you can do to manage it.

Understand your medications for breathlessness

If you have puffer or inhaler medication make sure you know what these are for and how to use them.

Start a symptom diary

Keeping track of your symptoms can help you and your cancer care team to manage them better.

Talk to your doctor or nurse to see if there is a diary they recommend, or use the example provided on this page.

Know who to contact if you have a problem

Ask your doctor or nurse:

  • when you should call for help or advice
  • who you should contact
  • how to contact them (including at night or weekends).

Keep this information where you can easily find it.

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Managing symptoms

Managing shortness of breath

Mild to moderate shortness of breath can come and go. It usually improves with rest and simple breathing exercises.

If your shortness of breath doesn’t improve, contact your doctor or cancer care team.  Ask them what is causing it and what can be done to make it better. 

Severe shortness of breath

If you have a sudden shortness breath that makes it difficult to talk, with or without chest pain, you need medical attention.  

Use the contact numbers you have been given. If you can’t get hold of anyone, go to your nearest hospital emergency department for assessment.

Treatment changes

Occasionally, if you have severe symptoms, your doctor may discuss delaying or changing your treatment. See our Treatment changes page for more information.

Checklists

Use our checklists to find helpful tips or questions to ask.

Where to get help

There are people you can talk to for more information or support.

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