Shortness of breath / Dyspnea

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Q: Are there any medications to help someone who has difficulty breathing?

Difficulty breathing is also called shortness of breath or dyspnea. It’s a common symptom in many diseases, especially in advanced stages. Many people describe it as feeling "hungry for air."

Opioid medications are commonly used to help control shortness of breath. In advanced stages of an illness, the treatment approach is similar to that for pain. That is, the goal is to have a constant level of medication in the body, to prevent dyspnea from occurring, rather than to wait for it to appear then treat it and wait for relief. This approach requires regular, around-the-clock doses of an opioid.

The regularly scheduled medication may do a good job controlling the shortness of breath, but the health care team can prescribe what’s called a breakthrough dose or rescue dose in case the dyspnea occasionally flares up or “breaks through” the level of regular control. It’s a good idea to keep track of how many breakthrough doses are used and when. This gives the health care team a sense of how the patient is doing, and whether the regular dosage is effective. If there are many flare-ups, the regular dosage may need to be increased.

Dyspnea can cause anxiety or increase existing anxiety. In this case, medications for anxiety may be given. Other medications may be used to treat other causes of dyspnea. For example, an antibiotic may be given in the hopes of treating a pneumonia.

Q: Is it better to use morphine or Dilaudid to treat dyspnea in end-stage heart failure?

Dyspnea is a common symptom in end-stage heart failure, and, in addition to optimizing cardiac medications, opioids can be very effective in reducing the sensation of air hunger. However, there is often some reluctance to prescribe opioids in patients with respiratory compromise, and there is some conflicting information about the safety of opioids in acutely decompensated heart failure.

In general, the most effective approach to relieving dyspnea in heart failure is to improve volume status and cardiac output; that is, to specifically treat the heart failure. However, in end-stage cardiac disease, dyspnea often persists in spite of maximal treatment of the heart failure.

In the management of dyspnea in heart failure, Goodlin stated that “dyspnea and fatigue seem to diminish with normalization in volume status. Opioids are the only specific intervention that has been tested in treatment of dyspnea. Other measures such as oxygen and nitrates may be worth a trial for dyspneic patients. Exercise may reduce dyspnea and fatigue.”[1]

In the very specific circumstances of acutely decompensated heart failure, some concerns have recently arisen about the safety of morphine. One study showed that patients receiving morphine in such circumstances have worse outcomes.[2] It is not clear whether this reflects the fact that morphine was used in more seriously ill patients, or if there are other factors at play. One theory is that patients in acutely decompensated heart failure require high sympathetic tone, and opioids may help dyspnea by interrupting excess sympathetic outflow.[3] If morphine is used in an acute-on-chronic decompensation of heart failure, it should be with conservative initial doses and gentle titration.

However, it is important to be aware that the above study did not refer to patients at end of life, but rather to patients with an acute decompensation of chronic heart failure. Opioids have an important role in symptom management at the end of life for patients with advanced heart disease, and should be used in such circumstances. The imperative to address comfort in a patient dying of cardiac failure should be the overriding goal in such situations, rather than being hindered by concerns arising from a single retrospective study that was not focused on end-of-life care.

Reviews of the literature suggest that dyspnea as the target symptom should not influence whether morphine, hydromorphone or fentanyl is used. While the body of evidence for opioids in dyspnea is largest for morphine, there is evidence for hydromorphone and fentanyl. The selection of opioid is determined by considerations such as renal function, available routes of administration, previous history of adverse effects, existing opioid tolerance, and so forth.


1. Goodlin SJ. Palliative care for end-stage heart failure. Curr Heart Fail Rep. 2005;2:155-160.

2. Peacock WF, Hollander JE, Diercks DB, Lopatin M, Fonarow G, Emerman CL. Morphine and outcomes in acute decompensated heart failure: an ADHERE analysis. Emerg Med J. 2008;25:205-209.

3. Johnson MJ, Oxberry SG. The management of dyspnea in chronic heart failure. Curr Opin Support Palliat Care. 2010;4:63-68.

Other references

Clemens KE, Klaschik E. Effect of hydromorphone on ventilation in palliative care patients with dyspnea. Support Care Cancer. 2008;16:93-99.

Mahler DA, Selecky PA, Harrod CG, et al. American College of Chest Physicians consensus statement on the management of dyspnea in patients with advanced lung or heart disease. Chest. 2010; 137: 674-691.

Sitte T, Bausewein C. Intranasal fentanyl for episodic breathlessness. J Pain Symptom Manage. 2008;36:e3-e6.

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