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HealthInfo Canterbury

Breathlessness & coughing in palliative care

Being short of breath, or breathless, can be common and upsetting for people receiving palliative care. It might come and go, or it might last all day.

Several things can cause breathlessness, such as:

If breathlessness is worrying you, see a doctor to find out what's causing it and to get help to ease your distress.

Your doctor will arrange treatment if that will help. Treatment could include chemotherapy or radiation.

If your breathlessness can't be treated, your doctor will need to check how anxious it's making you, how it's affecting your day-to-day life and how uncomfortable it's making you. They may have some options for managing your breathing that can help.

Treating breathlessness

Several things can help to treat breathlessness. They include medicines, but they also include other strategies.

Strategies to treat and manage breathlessness

Medicines to treat and manage breathlessness

Medicines that your doctor might try for treating your shortness of breath could include:

Your doctor may write you a plan to guide you in managing your breathlessness, so you know what to do and who to call if your usual strategies and medicines aren't helping.


Coughing can be a troublesome symptom and might interfere with your sleeping, eating, drinking and communicating.

Several things might cause coughing, such as lung cancer, a chest infection or a lung condition such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). It often happens with other symptoms, such as breathlessness, wheezing or a tight chest. Your doctor will try to identify what's making you cough and treat it if possible.

Things that may help reduce your coughing include:

Your doctor might also prescribe other medicines to help suppress your cough, such as antibiotics or steroids.

On the next page: Constipation in palliative care

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Endorsed by Canterbury DHB and community palliative care specialists. Page created May 2017. Last updated July 2019.


Page reference: 350389

Review key: HIPAL-17434