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Breathlessness - don't ignore it

Dr Chris Browne, My Last Song's very own GP, looks at the causes of breathlessness and how to combat them. 

“Slow down a bit – I can't keep up”. “It's my breathing”. “I don't half pant going up the stairs”. How often have you said this, or heard an older loved one describing their breathing problems like this? 

Probably very often, because breathlessness is so common after the age of 60 that we almost expect it.

However, there are many causes for breathlessness that can be eased so that we can enjoy a full and active life into older age.

Breathing enables vital oxygen to enter the blood system through the lungs and also gets rid of a waste gas, carbon dioxide. 

It depends on healthy lungs, strong muscles to open them up and good circulation to carry the oxygenated blood from the lungs around the body.

Chronic Obstructive Airways Disease 

This is the name for emphysema and chronic bronchitis. It affects about a million people in this country. Its major cause is smoking.

Bronchitis is inflammation in the bronchi, the air tubes in the lungs. Over years of exposure to smoke the lungs get clogged up with excessive mucus stopping the oxygen getting into the blood.

Emphysema is a similar process but mainly caused by damage to the tissue in the lungs that keeps the air sacs open.

Both these conditions result in poor oxygen transfer, breathlessness and an increased risk of infections.  

If you have chronic bronchitis or emphysema and you still smoke, here are two words of instruction: STOP SMOKING!


This is a common condition at any age where the lining of the air tubes in the lungs gets inflamed causing the muscles to tighten which closes the air tubes. It affects one in 12 adults. 

It causes coughing, wheezing and breathlessness. If neglected or badly treated the narrowing of the air tubes becomes permanent.

It is made worse by smoking and infections as well as allergy. So asthma suffers who smoke: don't.

Heart failure 

The heart pumps the blood through the lungs to pick up oxygen. If the pump struggles then the circulation slows and breathlessness follows – especially during any exertion. 

There are 700,000 people in the UK with heart failure and the risk increases with age. 

There are many causes of heart failure including heart attacks, high blood pressure, damaged heart valves, anaemia and thyroid disease. All of these have treatment options to improve function.

Exercise and keep fit

The muscles of the chest wall raise and lower the ribs, thus helping to fill and empty the lungs. These muscles become even more important when there is any obstruction to the air flow in the lungs, such as asthma or bronchitis.

General exercise that involves enough effort to breath heavily helps to maintain good muscle tone – exercise at least three times a week.

There are many causes of breathlessness, so it is important not simply to accept it as part of growing older but to establish the cause and get effective and appropriate treatment. 

Keeping fit and active and not smoking will always help. Take any prescribed medication regularly as directed.

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