How to manage breathlessness

This page talks about managing breathlessness. For more information, you can also see our Essential Guide to Breathlessness (PDF).


If you experience breathlessness due to a health condition, feeling out of breath may be part of your daily life.

Everyone experiences breathlessness differently. For example, you might feel like your chest feels tight, that it is harder to fill up your lungs or it feels like you can’t catch your breath. Some people feel exhausted or panicky.

For some people breathlessness comes on quickly, for others, it gets slowly worse over time.

What causes breathlessness?

There are many different causes of breathlessness. Some of these include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
  • Heart failure
  • Asthma
  • Anxiety

Managing breathlessness

Living with breathlessness (also called ‘dyspnoea’) can be difficult. It can affect you physically and mentally. The good news is that there are lots of things you can do to help manage. These include:

  • Treating the cause of breathlessness with medication
  • Using breathing techniques
  • Living a healthy lifestyle

Treating the cause

Depending on the cause, you may be prescribed medication to help with your breathlessness. This may mean using an inhaler, spacer or nebuliser. These help you to breathe medicine straight into your lungs.

It is important to make sure you know how to use these in the right way. Your GP or other health professional can check this with you. You can also find out more about inhalers and how to use them at

Breathing control techniques

Breathing control techniques involve gentle breathing using your diaphragm (your main breathing muscle). You can ask your doctor or nurse what techniques may be best for you.

Examples include:

Relaxed, slow, deep breathing

  • Get into a comfortable position
  • Relax your shoulders
  • Breathe in gently through your nose, then out through your mouth

Pursed lips breathing

Breathe in through your nose, then out through your mouth with your lips pursed, like you are whistling. This helps to slow your breathing down.

Blow as you go

You can do this when you are doing an activity that needs a lot of effort, for example, when you are standing up or bending down. Breathe in first before you do the activity and breathe out when doing the activity.

Paced breathing

Breathe in and out in time with the activity you are doing. For example, when walking up stairs, breathe in on one step and breathe out on the next step.

Breathing positions

If you feel breathless, different standing or sitting positions can help your breathing recover and help you breathe more easily.

What works best for you will depend on where you are and what you are doing.

Example 1    

  • Sit down and lean forward.
  • Rest both arms on your thighs.
  • Relax your hands and wrists.

Example 2

  • Sit upright with your back against the back of a chair.
  • Rest both hands on your thighs.
  • Relax your hands and wrists.

Example 3

  • Stand up.
  • Lean forward with your arms resting on a ledge, for example, a windowsill, bench, handrail or back of a chair.

Example 4

  • Stand up and lean with your back against a wall.
  • Relax your shoulders.
  • Rest your arms down by your sides.
  • If it feels comfortable, move your feet about 30cm away from the wall.
  • Keep your feet slightly apart.






Chest clearing exercises

Chest clearing

Mucus (also called phlegm, sputum or spit) can build up in your lungs and make you feel more breathless. It is important to try to get rid of this mucus to help you breathe more easily. Your doctor may refer you to a respiratory (chest) physiotherapist. They will show you what exercises you can do to help clear your lungs and will tell you how often to do them.

Breathing at night

If you feel more breathless at night, there are different things you can do to help. These include:

  • Trying to sleep in an upright position, using pillows to support you
  • If you wake up breathless, sit up or on the edge of your bed with your feet on the ground and lean forward
  • Keep a glass of water and your inhaler, spacer or nebuliser next to your bed
  • Use your breathing control and chest clearing techniques

Pulmonary (lung) rehabilitation

Pulmonary rehabilitation (PR) is a free programme of exercise, education and support run by healthcare professionals for people with lung problems. It can help you to manage your condition and improve your quality of life. Your health professional can refer you to PR if they think it will help.

Keep up to date with your vaccinations

Being vaccinated lowers your risk of getting chest infection and helps to reduce how bad they are if you do get them.

Know your triggers

Things like pollen and smoke can make breathlessness worse. To find out about outdoor conditions in your area that might affect your breathing, text WEATHER to 66777 to receive a free text message from Chest Heart & Stroke Scotland.

Living a healthy lifestyle

Living a healthy lifestyle can greatly help with your breathlessness. This includes:

Stopping smoking – this is one of the most important things you can do for your health and to help with your breathing. There is lots of free support available to help you stop smoking. Ask your doctor, nurse or pharmacist for information or call Quit Your Way Scotland on 0800 848 484.

Managing your weight, eating well and drinking sensibly.

Keeping active – avoiding activity makes breathlessness worse. The more activity you do, the more you will be able to do. Your health professional can help you decide what activities are right for you, depending on how breathlessness affects you.

Know when to get medical help

  • Breathlessness is different for everyone. People may experience different symptoms on different days or at different times.
  • It is important to know what is ‘normal’ for you. This will help you to recognise if you are getting more breathless than usual.
  • If you feel more breathless than usual it is important to tell your doctor.

Ask your doctor for an urgent appointment or home visit if you experience any of the following:

  • you feel unwell or feverish
  • your coughing has increased
  • you have more mucus than normal
  • the colour of your mucus has changed.

You may need to start antibiotics. If so, it is important that you do this as soon as possible.

If you need to go to hospital remember to take all your medications and inhalers with you.

For more information on managing breathlessness, see our Essential Guide to Breathlessness (PDF).