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Clearing your lungs after COVID-19

When you are discharged from hospital you may find that you are still coughing up phlegm or mucus. This is normal after a respiratory infection like COVID-19 (coronavirus). Do some exercises to clear the phlegm from your lungs. This will improve your lung condition.

Doing some exercises to expand your lungs will help your recovery by:

  • increasing the amount of air inside your lungs
  • improving the strength of your muscles which you use to breathe
  • helping to clear phlegm and mucus from your lungs
  • preventing collapse at the base of your lungs

Deep breathing technique

Deep breathing is a simple technique to expand your lungs and help clear your phlegm. You can do this many times during the day in any place or position. Make sure you are comfortable and your chest and shoulders are relaxed.

  1. Sit or lie in a comfortable position.
  2. Put one hand on your tummy just below your ribs and the other hand on your chest.
  3. Take a deep breath through your nose, and let your tummy push your hand out. The hand on your tummy should move more than the hand on your chest.
  4. Breathe out through pursed lips as if you were whistling. Feel the hand on your belly go in, and use it to push all the air out.
  5. Do this breathing 3 to 5 times. Take your time with each breath.

Watch a demonstration of deep breathing.

Breath stacking technique

Breath stacking is a technique that can be used to:

  • help expand your lungs
  • keep the muscles flexible
  • help you have a stronger cough to clear your secretions

Wait for an hour after having food or drink before you perform these exercises. If you have any chest pain during the exercise, stop the exercise.

  1. Breathe out fully.
  2. Take a small breath in through your mouth, nose or both and hold.
  3. On top of the air already in your lungs, take another small breath.
  4. Repeat until you feel you cannot take in any more air and hold for 2 to 5 seconds.
  5. Exhale the air out of your mouth. This will feel like a large breath out with a greater force.

Watch a demonstration of breath stacking.

Phone your GP and stop these exercises if your breathing pattern is changing or becoming unusual when not doing the exercises.

Clearing phlegm from your lungs (postural drainage)

Your lungs have 5 lobes and phlegm can be in any of these.

Positioning exercises uses gravity to help clear phlegm that has built up in your lobes.

How effective they are will depend on the thickness or stickiness of your phlegm. It may be harder to clear thick phlegm. These exercises may not work if your phlegm is very thick and sticky.

Wait for at least 1 hour after a large meal before starting these exercises. Stop this exercise if you have heartburn or feel sick during it.

Positioning exercise 1

  • Lie on your back with your head flat and your knees bent.
  • Place pillows under your hips and knees so that your hips are higher than the level of your chest.
  • Stay in this position for at least 5 minutes if you are able to and try doing some deep breaths.
  • This may help clear phlegm from the base of your lungs.
Physio lying on his back with head flat and knees bent. Pillow is under hips and knees so that hips are higher than the level of his chest.
Demonstration of positioning exercise 1

Positioning exercise 2

  • Lie on one of your sides with your head flat and a pillow under your hip to raise it above the level of your chest.
  • You can place your hands under your head for comfort.
  • Remain in this position for 5 to 10 minutes if you are able to and try to do some deep breaths.
  • Repeat this on your left and right side.
 Physio lying on his side with head flat and a pillow under his hip to raise it above the level of his chest.
Demonstration of positioning exercise 2

Related topics

Breathlessness after COVID-19

Recovering after COVID-19

Swallowing difficulties and voice problems after COVID-19

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