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Symptom Management:

Symptom Management

Side Effects of Treatment
Side Effects of Chemotherapy
Appetite Loss
Bladder Disturbances
Incontinence - Urinary
Dryness of the Mouth
Fluid and Electrolyte Imbalances
Flu-like Syndrome
Hair Loss
Menopausal Symptoms
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Neurological Disturbances
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Shortness of Breath
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Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea)

Symptom and Description Dyspnea, or shortness of breath, is the feeling of having trouble breathing. Most often, people have this feeling because their bodies are working hard to move air in and out of their lungs. Less often, dyspnea occurs because the body is not getting enough oxygen. Many things can contribute to dyspnea. Shortness of breath can be caused or worsened by:

  • partial or complete removal of a lung
  • some chemotherapy drugs
  • radiation therapy to the lungs
  • tumor blocking the airways or pushing on the lungs from the outside
  • lung damage from smoking
  • anemia (low blood count)
  • infection
  • obesity
  • seasonal allergies

Feeling short of breath can cause anxiety, and anxiety can worsen the feeling, creating a vicious cycle that is hard to break. However, there are things you can do to make you feel less short of breath.

Learning Needs You may be able to decrease your shortness of breath, which will help you do more and enjoy life. You willl earn positioning, breathing, air flow, and relaxation techniques. Other things to try include:

  • Plan your day to lessen those activities that increase your dyspnea, such as stair-climbing and bending over.
  • Wear slip-on shoes. Pull sock and shoes on while sitting. Use special devices to pick up items on the floor or ground.
  • Ask family and friends for help.
  • Avoid things that make your breathing worse, such as cold air, humidity, pollen, or tobacco smoke.


Positioning: These positions will help your lungs expand:

  • Sitting upright in a chair, lean forward slightly, and rest your forearms on the arms of the chair, on another piece of furniture, or on your knees.
  • Sleep with your head on several pillows or sitting up in a recliner.

Breathing Techniques: Pursed-lip breathing slows the flow of air as you breathe out. This helps the smallest areas of your lungs open up. It is most helpful if you have chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

  • Breathe in through your nose, as you normally would.
  • Breathe out for twice as long as you breathe in. Keep your lips tightly together, except for the very center. Blow out through this small opening.

Abdominal breathing, also called diaphragmatic breathing, may lessen dyspnea by making the muscles that help you breathe more effective and stronger. If you have not been taught abdominal breathing, a variety of health care providers can help you learn this technique. To try it on your own:

  • Find your diaphragm by placing your fingers just below your breast bone and sniffing. The muscle you feel moving is your diaphragm.
  • Lie on your back as flat as is comfortable. Bend your knees and put a book on your abdomen. Breathe in deeply. As your diaphragm contracts, the book will rise. Continue to practice, with your goal being to move the book with each breath.

Airflow: Some people with shortness of breath feel better with oxygen treatments. Many people, however, will get the same results from cool air blowing on their cheek. Another way to reduce shortness of breath is to apply a cold cloth to your cheek.

Relaxation Techniques: Dyspnea can cause anxiety. Anxiety can worsen dyspnea. It is important to learn ways to break the cycle of dyspnea and anxiety.

  • Concentration: Progressive muscle relaxation is a technique you can use at home to help you relax and reduce dyspnea. While live training may help you learn more quickly, audio and video taped training in progressive muscle relaxation is also helpful and can be found at many bookstores.
  • Diversion: You may find activities that distract you from thinking about your breathing to be helpful.

Follow-up There are other treatments for shortness of breath that can be tried, if your efforts arenít working well enough. Your healthcare provider may prescribe oxygen therapy or medications. In some cases, a lung or heart rehabilitation program may be suggested.

  • Tell your healthcare team about the methods you are using at home and how well they are working.
  • If you are unsure of any instructions you are given, tell your doctor or nurse.

Be sure you understand when to call your doctor or nurse, and have both regular and emergency phone numbers handy.

Empower yourself with information.  Knowledge is power.
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