Introduction to Breathlessness
Up to 40% of heart failure patients are breathless in the 6 months before death, rising to 65% in the three days leading up to death. Breathlessness is almost universal in patients with more than mild COPD or Interstitial Lung Disease (ILD). With very advanced disease, specific pharmacological treatment aimed at particular lung pathology (e.g. bronchodilators for bronchospasm) may have limited success and more general symptom control measures are often necessary.
The use of low dose opioids, titrated carefully, can help to relieve the sensation of breathlessness in patients with lung pathology, heart failure and cancer.
Oxygen therapy should not be used routinely. It may give symptom benefit if the patient is known to be hypoxic, including if they desaturate on exertion. For most, the use of a fan or other draught of air may be just as effective as oxygen.
Non-drug intervention may be of benefit in helping patients manage their symptoms; however, in advanced illness patients may often require opioid and/or benzodiazepine medication. These can be given by different routes of administration e.g. orally, sublingually (lorazepam), by continuous subcutaneous infusion via syringe driver/pump or bolus PRN dosing (subcutaneously or in exceptional circumstances intravenously).