If you get out of breath doing things you used to be able to do, tell your doctor.

Dr Rosie Loftus

If you get out of breath doing things you used to be able to do, don't ignore it. Call your GP today.

What could it be?

We all get short of breath sometimes, but if you get out of breath doing everyday things you used to be able to do it could be a sign of lung disease, such as COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), or heart disease.

It could also be a sign of other health problems such as anaemia or anxiety. But don't try and diagnose yourself, go and see your doctor to find out for sure.

The good news is that the conditions that cause shortness of breath can often be treated. So it's important to see your doctor if your breathing is difficult or uncomfortable, or if it feels like you can't get enough air.

Could it be cancer?

Breathlessness could also be a sign of lung cancer, which is why it's so important to see your doctor. Early detection makes it easier to treat. Seeing your doctor could save your life.

Other symptoms of heart disease or lung disease

If you get out of breath doing everyday activities such as light housework, walking short distances on relatively flat ground (for example to your local shop), gardening or climbing a short flight of stairs, you should see your GP as soon as possible.

You should also see your doctor if you have any of the symptoms below, as they can also be signs of lung or heart disease.

  • a cough that has got worse or changes
  • frequent chest infections
  • coughing up blood
  • chest or shoulder pain
  • wheezing
  • feeling more tired than usual for some time
  • losing weight for no obvious reason

It's important to see your doctor if you have these symptoms, and not put them down to "a smoker’s cough" or getting older. These diseases can be treated more effectively the earlier they are diagnosed.

If you know anyone who has any of these symptoms, encourage them to see their doctor.

Find your local GP

What will happen at my GP appointment?

If you've been experiencing breathlessness for a while, you're not wasting anyone's time by getting your symptoms checked out.

Before you visit your GP, it may help to write down your symptoms so you don't forget anything on your visit.

At your appointment, your doctor may ask you some questions, such as how long you have had your symptoms and whether they have changed over time.

Your doctor may suggest some tests such as a chest x-ray, blood tests and lung function tests. These are all standard procedures and nothing to worry about.


Hear from our GPs

Find out what to expect when you see your doctor – watch the video.

About breathlessness

Everybody will experience breathlessness every now and again, for example after physical exertion or heavy exercise that you are not used to. This is healthy and normal.

Getting out of breath can also be a sign of other health problems such as anaemia or anxiety, or it could be the result of being overweight or physically inactive.

However, sometimes being short of breath can be a sign of something more serious – an illness, such as heart or lung disease, or other health problems, such as asthma. Diagnosing these conditions early makes them more treatable.

Reduce your risk

A healthy lifestyle can help you reduce your risk of lung disease, including lung cancer. Some ways to stay healthy are:

  • stop smoking – if you smoke, the best thing you can do for your health is to quit. There's plenty of support available from the NHS. Visit nhs.uk/smokefree or call 0300 123 1044.
  • look after yourself – try to maintain a healthy weight and keep active. Swimming, cycling, dancing, walking – the more you can do, the better. Try to eat a healthy, balanced diet too, with plenty of fruit and vegetables.
  • cut down on alcohol – drinking too much alcohol can lead to a number of health problems. By drinking less, you'll reduce your health risks.

For more information on how to reduce your risk of cancer, visit nhs.uk/reduce-your-risk.

Content last reviewed: May 2017