Managing Shortness of Breath Near the End of Life

Watching an aging family member struggle to catch their breath can be frightening. Imagine feeling like you’re suffocating and you’ll begin to understand how shortness of breath can trigger moments of crisis.


Shortness of breath, also called dyspnea, is commonly associated with some serious illnesses. It's often the most fear-inducing symptom faced by family hospice caregivers.


The good news is that hospice care includes proven therapies to manage shortness of breath. When families have a plan to anticipate and manage breathing problems, they can focus on patient comfort and improving quality of life.

Medical and non-medical relief

Medical and non-medical relief

Shortness of breath can trigger panic, which makes it even more difficult to breath. This cycle of breathlessness and panic can spiral downward into unwanted trips to the emergency room. The hospice team works with you to prevent breathlessness from becoming a crisis.


Non-medical options


  • Use a fan to move air across the face. A portable fan gives patients more control over the breeze and can be a tool to self-manage their symptoms.
  • A hospice nurse may teach a breathing technique called diaphragmatic breathing. This belly breathing helps some patients take a fuller breath and stay relaxed.
  • Training in pursed-lip breathing may help some patients. It slows the rate of breathing and helps open the airways to exhale more fully.
  • Relaxation techniques keep problems from escalating.
  • Correcting poor posture, including sitting more upright in a chair or bed, or elevating the head of the bed can help relieve pressure on the diaphragm and lungs.
  • Increasing humidity levels or lowering the room temperature sometime make breathing easier.
  • Reduce irritants such as smoke, dust and pet dander.

Medications to relieve symptoms

A complex mix of disorders can contribute to breathing problems, including chronic diseases, anemia, infections and many more. An initial assessment helps identify underlying causes and provides caregiver education and response plans.


Morphine is a safe and effective treatment for shortness of breath. It works by relieving the feeling of air hunger and reducing anxiety. Close contact with family caregivers enables the hospice team to find the right level of medication to improve quality of life without causing impairment.


Family members sometimes fear morphine will be addictive or hasten death. Research shows that morphine, given in a hospice setting, can reduce air hunger and improve a patient's energy level. Labored breathing takes work. Low doses of morphine can help patients relax and catch their breath.


What about giving oxygen?

Caregivers sometimes ask about oxygen therapy. Breathing problems can be complex. Patients who feel breathless sometimes have normal oxygen levels and some with low levels cannot benefit from oxygen therapy. The hospice team will identify when oxygen may be helpful.