Shortness of breath is a common symptom of COVID-19 (coronavirus). Some people describe it as feeling ‘puffed’, ‘short of breath’ or ‘winded’.
The feeling of shortness of breath may continue for a while after your illness. This is a normal part of the recovery process.
Normal activities can make you feel short of breath, for example:
- getting dressed
- walking to the bathroom
- doing jobs around the house
When you learn to control your breathing, your stamina will improve. You will then be able to do more before feeling short of breath.
Things to try when you feel short of breath
Feeling short of breath can make you feel panicked or anxious. This can make your shortness of breath worse.
When you feel shortness of breath, try to:
- stop speaking and moving
- give yourself time to recover your breath
- relax or distract yourself by focusing on a picture or a view from the window
- find a position to help your breathing
- do exercises to control your breathing
Managing shortness of breath is about controlling your breathing. You can do this no matter how fast or shallow your breath.
Positions to help your breathing
Choose a position that will make it easier for you to breathe. It is important to try and relax in these positions. Focus on relaxing the muscles in your neck and shoulders.
Sitting leaning forward
Sit leaning forward resting your elbows on your knees or the arms of the chair.
Sitting leaning forward at a table
Sit leaning forward with your elbows resting on a table. You could put some pillows or cushions on the table for comfort.
Standing leaning forward
Lean forwards resting your elbows on a chair, a wall or a railing. You could use a walking stick or a frame if you use one for walking.
Breathing techniques can be taught to you by your nurse or physiotherapist.
How to control your breathing
Relaxed tummy breathing
This breathing technique can help if you are breathless after doing any activity. It may help you feel more relaxed if you are feeling anxious or panicky.
Breathing from the tummy does not come naturally. You should practice it when you are not breathless. This will help you master the technique.
Practising tummy breathing
- Find a comfortable position with your head and back supported, and your shoulders and upper chest relaxed.
- Place one hand on your tummy.
- Feel the tummy rise and expand as you breathe in and relax down as you breathe out.
- Breathe gently when practising - there should only be a slight movement of your tummy at rest.
Watch a demonstration of the tummy breathing technique.
Breathe low and slow
Taking slower, deeper breaths from your tummy helps to ease shortness of breath.
Breathe a rectangle
When you practice relaxed tummy breathing, it might help to picture a rectangle. This could be a book, a TV, window, table top, or a picture on the wall.
Pursed lip breathing
This can help if you are very short of breath, become anxious or if you find tummy breathing difficult.
When you do pursed lip breathing, it takes more time for the air to leave your lungs. This makes it easier to take the next breath in.
- Breathe in through your nose.
- Purse your lips and breathe out.
- Continue until you feel your breathing is under control.
Watch a demonstration of pursed lip breathing.
Check how short of breath you are
COVID-19 usually affects the respiratory system. This can result in a lung injury that can take time to recover. This breathlessness scale will tell you how well your lungs are recovering.
The scale starts at the number 0 where your breathing is causing you no difficulty at all. It goes through up to 10, where your breathing is at its most difficult.
Use this scale to monitor and guide you as you exercise. It’s important to take regular rests and stop before you get too short of breath.
Modified BORG Breathlessness Scale
- 0 - Nothing at all
- 0.5 - Extremely Slight (Just noticeable)
- 1 - Very Slight
- 2 - Slight
- 3 - Moderate
- 4 - Somewhat Severe
- 5 - Severe
- 7 - Very Severe
- 9 - Extremely Severe (almost maximal)
- 10 - Maximal
When to get medical help
Shortness of breath can sometimes be serious and you'll need to get medical help.
Immediate action required: Call 112 or 999 if:
- your chest feels tight or heavy
- you have pain that spreads to your arms, back, neck and jaw
- you feel or are being sick
You could be having a heart attack or a problem with your lungs or airway.
Non-urgent advice: Phone your GP if
you have shortness of breath and:
- your breathing changes from what is normal
- it gets worse when you have been active
- it gets worse when you lie down
- you have been coughing for 3 weeks or more
- you have swollen ankles
If you smoke and you are feeling shortness of breath, you should quit smoking. We provide free support to smokers who are thinking of quitting. This support is available on the phone, online or in person.
Content contributed by the Irish Society of Chartered Physiotherapists