If you get out of breath doing things you used

Large print version
Dr Stephen Gaduzo
If you
get out
of breath doing
things you used
to be able to do,
tell your doctor.
NHS Breathlessness campaign
If you get out of breath doing things
you used to be able to do,
tell your doctor.
Let’s be clear about breathlessness
Everybody will experience breathlessness every now and
again, for example after physical exertion or heavy exercise
that you are not used to. This is healthy and normal.
However, sometimes being short of breath could be a sign
of something serious.
If you are feeling out of breath when doing day to day
activities that you used to be able to do, then it could be a
symptom of an illness such as chronic obstructive
pulmonary disease (COPD), lung cancer or heart disease. It
could also indicate other health problems such as asthma,
anaemia or anxiety. Diagnosing these conditions early
makes them more treatable. Breathlessness could also be
as a result of being overweight or physically inactive and, by
tackling these, you can avoid other diseases such as
diabetes developing.
Let’s be clear about COPD
COPD stands for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It
is the name used to describe a number of conditions,
including chronic bronchitis and emphysema, where people
have difficulty breathing primarily due to a narrowing of their
COPD is one of the most common respiratory diseases in
the UK. It usually affects people over the age of 35,
although most people are not diagnosed until they are in
their fifties.
The main cause of COPD is smoking. Some cases of COPD
are caused by fumes, dust, air pollution and genetic
disorders, but these are rarer. Across England there are
over a million people who are currently living with the
disease diagnosed, however it is estimated that many more
people have COPD which is currently undiagnosed. This is
because many people who develop symptoms often dismiss
it as a ‘smoker’s cough’.
It is important that COPD is diagnosed as early as possible
to make it more treatable.
Let’s be clear about lung cancer
Breathlessness is a major symptom of lung cancer, one of
the most common cancers. A persistent cough and chest
infections are also symptoms of lung cancer. There are
some 35,900 new cases in England every year. It kills more
men and women than any other form of cancer.
Lung cancer affects people of all ages but is most common
in those who are over 50. Although it is more common in
smokers, around one in eight people with lung cancer have
never smoked.
The risk of lung cancer gets worse as you get older, but
finding it early improves the chances of successful
Let’s be clear about heart disease
While most people know that chest pain can mean the
presence of heart disease, it is less well known that
breathlessness can also be a symptom of it. Breathlessness
occurs when your heart is having trouble pumping enough
blood around your body. This is usually because there has
already been some damage to the heart muscle, but
sometimes this is just a warning, and medical help can
prevent damage to the heart.
Even where there is damage, there are now many
treatments that can reduce or get rid of the breathlessness.
Heart disease is common in the UK, especially in smokers.
The earlier people get help, the more effective treatment is.
Let’s be clear about anxiety
Anxiety can cause breathlessness on its own but can also
occur alongside other causes. Rapid or deep breathing
(often called hyperventilation), is just one possible symptom
of anxiety which may result in feelings of breathlessness.
Although it can significantly affect people’s daily lives, there
is a range of treatments available, including addressing the
causes of anxiety, psychological therapies, breathing retraining and medication.
Let’s be clear about how to spot
breathlessness symptoms
Breathlessness may involve:
Difficult breathing
Uncomfortable breathing
Feeling like you are not getting enough air
More rapid breathing
You need to see your doctor straight away if:
You have been experiencing breathlessness while doing
everyday activities such as light housework, walking
short distances on relatively flat ground (e.g. to your
local shop), gardening or climbing a short flights of stairs
You find yourself stopping and looking in shop windows,
or stopping to tie your shoe laces unnecessarily, rather
than admit you are feeling breathless
Let’s be clear about how seeing your doctor
early could save and improve your life
Here is a real life story.
Alan Cooley, aged 65 says:
I was working on a building site and was starting to feel
more and more out of breath as I went about my work. I was
carrying less and less material around and found it hard to
get anything done without pausing for breath. I didn’t realise
how bad it was and tried to hide it, but my family and
workmates began to notice and persuaded me to visit my
doctor. I was diagnosed with COPD and now I am receiving
treatment for it, things are so much more manageable.
I can finally walk reasonable distances again without
pausing for breath!
Let’s be clear about your visit to your doctor
You can find your doctor’s contact details at nhs.uk/findgp
Your doctor will ask you a few questions, like the ones
below, and may suggest some tests such as chest x-ray,
blood tests and lung function tests. These are standard
procedures and nothing to worry about.
Your doctor might ask you some of these questions:
How long have you been experiencing breathlessness
and how quickly did it come on?
What triggers the breathlessness and what relieves it – if
anything does?
Could you describe how the breathlessness affects you
over the course of the day?
Does it come on or get worse when you lie flat?
Tell me about any stress or worries you might have at
the moment?
Do you smoke?
What do you do for a job?
Is your breathlessness related to certain times at work?
Does anything bring it on? For example, pollen, pets or
Do you have a history of heart, lung or thyroid disease or
Do you take any medication?
Unclear about anything?
Then visit nhs.uk/outofbreath
This leaflet is available in other formats from the website
nhs.uk/outofbreath or from Public Health England – please
email enquiries@phe.gov.uk
© Crown copyright 2015
Product code 2903093LP
Produced by Williams Lea, BDS Communications Ltd and
Transmedialink for Public Health England
© Crown copyright 2015
Product code 2903093LP
Produced by Williams Lea, BDS Communications Ltd and
Transmedialink for Public Health England