How to Manage Dyspnea in Dying Patients

Elderly woman looking at her husband wearing an oxygen mask

Blend Images / Getty Images

Terminally ill patients in hospice or palliative-care settings might experience dyspnea (difficulty breathing) as they near the end of their lives. Dyspnea may be related to an underlying disease, such as lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), or a secondary cause such as pneumonia. Oxygen therapy is usually the first line of treatment, but there are other non-medical interventions that may help, too.

What Is Dyspnea?

Dyspnea is a shortness of breath or difficult or labored breathing that can sometimes occur suddenly. People experiencing dyspnea often describe it as shortness of breath, tightness in their chest, fighting for air, or feeling smothered; or they might simply say, "I can't breathe."

In some cases, a patient's respiration rate (how rapidly they breathe in and out) will increase and their chest might constrict as the patient tries to get enough air while breathing.

Normal breathing and the exchange of oxygen for carbon dioxide is a combination of the rate of breathing (breaths per minute) and the volume of air per breath (tidal volume). Patients experiencing dyspnea might try to increase the rate of their breathing or the tidal volume.

If an individual's oxygen levels are severely compromised, discoloration might occur in their nail beds and/or lips, a serious condition called cyanosis.

Causes

There are many causes of dyspnea in end-of-life situations. The cause is sometimes directly related to the patient's underlying disease—especially if the diagnosis involves the respiratory system, such as lung cancer or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).

Dyspnea can also occur due to secondary causes, such as pneumonia or chemotherapy, or due to the lungs overcompensating for the failure of another organ, such as the kidney or heart. Typically, several factors can contribute to a terminally ill patient experiencing dyspnea.

Because breathing is something we generally take for granted, individuals experiencing dyspnea often experience heightened anxiety. Anxiety can cause cognitive, emotional, behavioral and physical manifestations that exacerbate dyspnea, so it's important to manage a patient's anxiety, too.

An estimated 55 to 70% of hospice and palliative-care patients near the end of life experience dyspnea, and some patients find their shortness of breath/breathing difficulties more distressing than physical pain.

Medical Dyspnea Interventions

Because the goal of palliative care and hospice is to provide comfort to terminally ill patients, you most likely should not call 911. In these situations, if your loved one or patient experiences dyspnea, you should contact their treating physician immediately. The doctor or a nurse will guide you in the best treatment to provide comfort. If your patient is under hospice care, you should call the hospice agency, and a hospice nurse will give you instructions over the phone before possibly sending a nurse out to evaluate the patient's symptoms.

Otherwise, medical treatments/interventions for dyspnea in hospice and palliative-care settings generally focus on relieving the patient's feeling of breathlessness, such as:

  • Oxygen: Administering oxygen is usually the first line of treatment.
  • Medications: If the cause of dyspnea is a chronic illness, such as COPD, medications in use for that illness might be re-evaluated and adjusted, if necessary. Morphine is commonly used to relieve breathlessness because it dilates blood vessels in the lungs, reduces the respiration rate, and increases the depth of breathing—all of which can also lower the patient's anxiety level. While anti-anxiety medications can reduce a patient's feelings of anxiousness and increase his or her comfort level, they can also make dyspnea worse, however.

If a patient experiences dyspnea at the end of life and is awake to feel it, the palliative medicine or hospital provider will be sure to relieve them from this symptom, usually by using certain medications to keep them unconscious.

Non-Medical Dyspnea Interventions

Non-medical interventions are very important in treating dyspnea and can be implemented during medical treatment or while you wait for medical help to arrive. Some things you can do include:

  • Cool the room and make sure the patient is wearing lightweight clothing.
  • Increase the humidity level in the room.
  • Use a fan to blow air directly at the patient's face, provided he or she can tolerate this feeling.
  • Open a nearby window to provide a breeze and/or fresh air.
  • Have the patient sit upright in bed and perform deep-breathing exercises.
  • Try a relaxation technique, such as playing relaxing music, applying massage or some other relaxing touch of the patient's choosing. You might also consider using guided imagery or meditation, which are two techniques that might help.
  • Provide emotional support to the patient by listening closely to what he or she says and then providing reassurance.
Was this page helpful?
Article Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Simon ST, Higginson IJ, Benalia H, et al. Episodes of breathlessness: types and patterns - a qualitative study exploring experiences of patients with advanced diseases. Palliat Med. 2013;27(6):524-32. doi:10.1177/0269216313480255

  2. Wahls SA. Causes and evaluation of chronic dyspnea. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):173-82.

  3. Currow DC, Abernethy AP. Pharmacological management of dyspnoea. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2007;1(2):96-101. doi:10.1097/SPC.0b013e3282ef5e03

  4. Buckholz GT, Von gunten CF. Nonpharmacological management of dyspnea. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2009;3(2):98-102. doi:10.1097/SPC.0b013e32832b725e

Additional Reading
  • Ferrell BR, Coyle N. Textbook of Palliative Nursing. Oxford University Press, 2006.

  • Hsu D. Dyspnea in dying patients. Canadian Family Physician. 1993;39.

  • Kinzbrunner BM, Weinreb NJ, Policzer JS. 20 Common Problems: End of Life Care. McGraw-Hill Publishing, 2002.

Related Articles