The American Thoracic Society suggests taking the following steps to help you control breathlessness once your doctor has diagnosed the underlying cause:
1. Take your medication as prescribed. Conditions such as lung disease and heart failure often require daily medication, even if you feel you don’t need it. Make sure you understand how to use any prescription inhaler so the medicine reaches your lungs and doesn’t stick to the back of your throat. If you’re not getting enough oxygen, your doctor may prescribe supplemental oxygen in portable canisters to help you breathe easier.
2. Learn breathing techniques. Breath training can improve control of breathing, decrease the amount of energy required to breathe, and improve position and function of the respiratory muscles. Breathing techniques include diaphragmatic breathing, which teaches you to efficiently use the diaphragm to breathe instead of the muscles in the rib cage, neck, and abdomen; forward-bending posture, which involves breathing while bending slightly forward from the waist; and pursed-lip breathing.
3. Build up your stamina. Though it might be hard to exercise while you’re short of breath, working out is often one of the best things you can do for your heart and lungs. A daily walk or another type of exercise will strengthen the muscles you use to breathe and make your body more efficient at using oxygen. Be certain to check with your doctor first.
4. Pace yourself. Avoid rushing to finish chores or activities; instead, do them in stages to help prevent bouts of breathlessness.
5. Try not to hold your breath. You may be holding your breath unconsciously, especially when doing activities such as lifting or even walking. Try to exhale two to three times longer than you inhale, but don’t force air out. Focus on exhaling during the exertion portion of any movement, especially when lifting. When you walk, inhale on one step, then exhale on two to three steps.
6. Sit in front of a fan. Positioning a fan to blow across your face when you feel short of breath can help ease breathlessness.
7. Ask about other medications. Sometimes, a drug meant to ease anxiety can aid in controlling your breathlessness.
This article first appeared in the July 2018 issue of UC Berkeley Health After 50.