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Breathing & Respiratory Difficulties

Some people with Parkinson’s disease (PD) may experience shortness of breath. There is no clear cause underlying respiratory dysfunction in PD, its frequency or the effect that medications have on respiration. Several reasons for shortness of breath in PD include:

  • “Wearing off” is a common experience among people with PD who have been taking levodopa for several years. These occur when the medication benefit wears off and PD symptoms (including shortness of breath) return before the next dose.
  • Respiratory dyskinesia refers to an occurrence of irregular and rapid breathing when levodopa medications reach their peak effect. These may accompanied by involuntary body movements, typically experienced as dyskinesia.
  • Anxiety is a common symptom of PD that may also exacerbate shortness of breath, whether by itself or as a consequence of wearing off of the medication.
  • Aspiration pneumonia is a pneumonia that develops after food or liquid “goes down the wrong pipe.” Advanced PD can increase the risk of swallowing difficulties, choking and aspiration pneumonia.
  • Non-PD health issues include conditions such as asthma, allergies, lung disease, heart disease and other conditions that may cause shortness of breath.

Therapies

Treating breathing difficulties in PD depends on identifying their cause. There is no specific therapy for shortness of breath among people with PD and tests may show that everything is normal. Still, it may help to discuss your medications with your doctor.

Tips for Coping with Breathing Difficulties

  • Work with your doctor to identify and treat any non-PD causes of shortness of breath, such as lung disease, heart disease or lack of physical conditioning and endurance.
  • Exercise as much as possible. Shortness of breath may lead a person to move less. Less physical activity reduces the ability to take deep breaths. Staying active improves pulmonary function.
  • Take steps to cope with anxiety. Talk with your doctor to figure out what sets off anxiety and find treatments (medications, exercise, lifestyle changes) and techniques that work for you.
  • Speak to your doctor about getting an evaluation performed by a speech-language pathologist (SLP) who can help you address issues related to swallowing.
  • Give up smoking.

Page reviewed by Dr. Chauncey Spears, Movement Disorders Fellow at the University of Florida, a Parkinson’s Foundation Center of Excellence.

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