Skip to content

This information was reviewed and approved by Andrew M. Freeman, MD, FACC, FACP (12/1/2012).

Dyspnea, or being short of breath, experiencing “air hunger,” or having difficulty catching your breath, is a subjective symptom. There are no tools that can measure or diagnose your sense of breathlessness. You may feel short of breath even though the pulse oximeter may read 93%. The important thing is to treat this symptom until you are comfortable and feel as if you are no longer short of breath.

Dyspnea may be caused by tumor blocking an airway or replacing part of your lung, fluid in or around the lungs (edema, pleural effusion), blocked blood flow in the major blood vessels to the heart (superior vena cava syndrome), blood clots in your lungs (pulmonary emboli), pneumonia or other respiratory infection, anemia (low red blood cell count), or hyperventilation due to anxiety. 

Sudden dyspnea or a rapid feeling of air hunger may indicate a medical emergency. Call 911 if you experience severe symptoms. Otherwise, call the Lung Cancer Center staff to discuss your symptoms. Prolonged dyspnea can lead to confusion and weakness, increasing your risk of falls.


Non-Drug Treatments for Dyspnea

  • Practice pursed-lip breathing to improve ventilation, release trapped air, and promote relaxation.

  • Place a small fan nearby to increase air circulation and create a breeze blowing across (not directly at) your face.

  • Open a window to increase air circulation and cool the room.

  • Try relaxation therapy, massage, or guided meditation to slow your pace of breathing.

  • Attend a National Jewish Health class on stress management/relaxation, oxygen therapy, or lung disease management.


Drug/Prescribed Treatments

Your doctor may prescribe medications to ease the work of breathing, open airways, and remove fluid buildup in your lungs. Your doctor may recommend using supplemental oxygen or procedures that can improve your ability to breathe.

What Not To Do


  • Smoking and spending time in smoke-filled rooms.

  • Respiratory irritants, such as pollen and other allergens.

  • Alcohol and caffeine.

  • Strenuous exercise.

  • Do not drive yourself to the hospital if you experience chest pain and shortness of breath. Call 911.

For more than 100 years, National Jewish Health has been committed to finding new treatments and cures for diseases. Search our clinical trials.