What to Know About Pursed-Lip Breathing

Medically Reviewed by Paul Boyce, MD on March 01, 2024
3 min read

A pursed-lip breathing exercise can help you improve shortness of breath. If you have a lung disease, such as asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), you may have to work hard to breathe when you're exerting yourself. Pursing your lips can help you slow your breathing and make each breath more effective. 

When you have trouble breathing, it can make you anxious. Being anxious can then make it even harder for you to breathe, creating a vicious cycle. Consequently, you may avoid activities that make you feel short of breath. This can cause your muscles to weaken, leading to more shortness of breath. 

Pursed-lip breathing helps you get more air without having to work so hard. Some of the ways pursed-lip breathing helps are: 

  • Releasing air that's trapped in your lungs
  • Keeping your airway open so you can breathe easier
  • Improving your ventilation
  • Slowing your breathing rate by prolonging the time you exhale
  • Helping you relax
  • Moving old air out of the lungs and new air in
  • Relieving shortness of breath

Pursed-lip breathing is particularly beneficial if you have COPD. COPD causes your airways to collapse. By prolonging the exhaling portion of breathing, pursed-lip breathing creates a little bit of back pressure, called positive end expiratory pressure (PEEP). This pressure helps keep the airways open so that carbon dioxide that's trapped in the lungs can get out.  

One study of pursed-lip breathing in people with COPD found that it reduced dynamic hyperinflation. Dynamic hyperinflation occurs when you start to inhale before you've finished exhaling from your last breath. When this happens, you still have air in your lungs from your last breath, so it reduces how much air you can breathe in.  

The study also showed that pursed-lip breathing helped improve exercise tolerance in people with COPD. It also improved their breathing pattern and increased the amount of oxygen in their blood.  

Pursed-lip breathing also gives you a sense of control over your breathing. This can help prevent the cycle that starts when you have trouble breathing and then become anxious. 

Pursed-lip breathing exercises are easy to learn. You can do them any time you're feeling short of breath or anxious. Here are the steps: 

  1. Drop your shoulders down, close your eyes, and relax.
  2. Inhale through your nose for two seconds.
  3. Pucker your lips like you're going to blow on something.
  4. Exhale slowly through your pursed lips for four to six seconds, but don't force the air out.
  5. Repeat until you feel in control of your breathing.

You should practice the technique four to five times daily until you can easily manage the breathing pattern. Then, you can do it anytime you're feeling short of breath. It's especially useful when you're doing activities that are difficult, such as climbing stairs, bending, or lifting something. You can also do it any time you're feeling anxious to help calm yourself down. 

Pursed-lip breathing is helpful any time you feel like you're having dyspnea (shortness of breath). Symptoms of dyspnea include: 

  • Feeling out of breath
  • Tightness in your chest
  • Inability to take a deep breath
  • Air hunger, or feeling like you're hungry for air

Pursed-lip breathing is often used to help with COPD or other lung diseases that cause shortness of breath. However, it can help if you're feeling dyspnea from other causes, too. A lot of different medical conditions can cause dyspnea, including: 

  • Anxiety
  • Asthma
  • Too much fluid around the heart
  • Pneumonia or other lung infections
  • Heart failure
  • Heart attack
  • Anemia, or low red blood cell count
  • Pregnancy
  • Collapsed lung
  • Broken rib
  • Sudden blood loss
  • Severe allergic reaction
  • Strenuous exercise

There are no known significant risks associated with pursed-lip breathing, although you should stop if you start to feel light-headed. You should discuss pursed-lip breathing with your doctor to be sure it’s right for you. Pursed-lip breathing may provide short-term relief of some types of dyspnea, but it won’t treat the underlying cause. 

Let your doctor know if you're having shortness of breath. If you're having shortness of breath for no apparent reason, or you're having chest pain or pressure, nausea, or fainting along with shortness of breath, seek immediate medical help.