What is Breathlessness?

Breathlessness is the feeling of being out of breath as your lungs work harder to draw in more oxygen. It is common in many different health conditions, especially chronic respiratory diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and interstitial lung disease (ILD), heart diseases, some cancers, some neurological diseases and many other conditions. First line treatments relieve breathlessness by addressing the underlying cause of the disease. However, when the best treatment for the underlying cause of the illness are used, and yet breathlessness continues to get worse, this is often called chronic or refractory breathlessness.

Severe breathlessness is debilitating and frightening. If you want to know what it feels like, try breathing through a straw. Breathlessness stops people from doing things that are important to them, such as hobbies or being with friends. It affects the ability to talk, to go out, or to do things at home. It can cause anxiety and panic for those affected and those important to them. It often gets worse as the illness progresses, so people are more likely to be admitted to hospital for emergency care and other emergency healthcare services. This causes additional stress and worry. Living with and/or caring for someone with breathlessness can cause significant burden and financial costs to the whole family.

To illustrate the severe effects that refractory breathlessness has on people's lives, the All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care (AIIHPC), which is partnered with the University College Dublin, has kindly allowed us to embed the following video (which was developed with the support of the Irish Health Service Executive) portraying the life of a patient suffering from refractory breathlessness.

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