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Symptom Management

Shortness of Breath

The sensation of shortness of breath, dyspnea in medical terminology, is common in patients with life-threatening conditions: 20-80% of palliative care patients experience this symptom. Like pain, shortness of breath is subjective. It is partly independent of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels.

There are many causes of shortness of breath, including:

Disease of the lung, such as emphysema, chronic bronchitis, cancer and many others
Fluid in the lungs
Emotional factors, such as anxiety

Sometimes simple measures can relieve the sensation of shortness of breath, including:

Providing a familiar voice to reduce anxiety
Changing position
Using relaxation techniques
Improving air circulation by opening a window or turning on a fan

Medication can sometimes be useful, including:

Opioids, such as morphine
Sedatives such as benzodiazepines
Oxygen through a face mask, in some cases
Corticosteroids, for patients with obstructive complications such as superior vena cava syndrome
Bronchodilators, if airway spasm is involved


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