Shortness of Breath
Are there any medications to help someone who has difficulty breathing?

Difficulty breathing is also called shortness of breath or dyspnea. It’s a common symptom in many diseases, especially in advanced stages. Many people describe it as feeling "hungry for air."

Opioid medications are commonly used to help control shortness of breath. In advanced stages of an illness, the treatment approach is similar to that for pain. That is, the goal is to have a constant level of medication in the body, to prevent dyspnea from occurring, rather than to wait for it to appear then treat it and wait for relief. This approach requires regular, around-the-clock doses of an opioid.

The regularly scheduled medication may do a good job controlling the shortness of breath, but the health care team can prescribe what’s called a breakthrough dose or rescue dose in case the dyspnea occasionally flares up or “breaks through” the level of regular control. It’s a good idea to keep track of how many breakthrough doses are used and when. This gives the health care team a sense of how the patient is doing, and whether the regular dosage is effective. If there are many flare-ups, the regular dosage may need to be increased.

Dyspnea can cause anxiety or increase existing anxiety. In this case, medications for anxiety may be given. Other medications may be used to treat other causes of dyspnea. For example, an antibiotic may be given in the hopes of treating a pneumonia.