Abstract Continuum effects may be easily treated in the RPA particle-hole theory of excitations, if the calculation is done with the response function formalism. We apply the theory to the low multipolarities in 16O, 40Ca, and 208Pb. We confirm that the width of the giant dipole state in light nuclei is accounted for by the continuum. In heavy nuclei the dipole decay width is relatively small. The giant quadrupole state is predicted to be much narrower than the dipole since it is concentrated in a single state. The 3ħω) octupole state is quite spread out in light nuclei, but has a width of only 1 MeV in 208Pb.