One symptom of COVID-19 is shortness of breath. A person might feel as if they cannot catch their breath or breathe deeply.
A virus called severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) causes coronavirus disease 19 (COVID-19). This illness can cause shortness of breath, other respiratory symptoms, and other types of symptoms.
COVID-19 cases vary in severity. Some people recover at home, while others experience complications and require more intensive care, with treatments such as oxygen therapy and mechanical ventilation.
Certain signs may help a person tell whether their shortness of breath results from COVID-19 or another health issue. We explore these below.
We also look at how COVID-19 can cause shortness of breath, ways to ease this symptom, and when to seek medical care.
People experience shortness of breath differently. As experts
Some people describe feeling always out of breath. Others feel as if they cannot breathe deeply enough or take satisfying breaths.
When it is severe, the issue can cause a person to continually gasp or struggle to catch their breath.
A person may also feel tightness in their chest, especially when trying to inhale or exhale fully.
These symptoms may occur during physical activity, though they can be present during periods of rest, as well.
- a fever
- a cough
- muscle aches
- a sore throat
- congestion or a runny nose
- shortness of breath or other difficulties breathing
- a loss of taste or smell
- nausea, sometimes with vomiting
The CDC say that the most common symptoms of cases that do not require hospital care are: fatigue, headaches, and muscle aches.
If a person has digestive symptoms, these may occur before other symptoms, such as respiratory ones.
The CDC also note that a loss of taste or smell is present in
Among people who require hospital care for COVID-19, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control say that the five most common symptoms include:
- a history of fever
- shortness of breath
- a cough
- general fatigue
In severe cases requiring emergency attention, shortness of breath may occur with:
- persistent pain or tightness in the chest
- a high fever
- loss of speech or movement
- difficulty waking or staying awake
- pale or bluish lips, face, or nails
Overall, it is important to keep in mind that COVID-19 can present atypically and that the symptoms can vary greatly from person to person.
COVID-19 symptoms may appear
The incubation period, the amount of time between exposure to the virus and developing symptoms, is
Some research indicates that difficulty breathing occurs, on average,
Shortness of breath, like some other COVID-19 symptoms, occurs because of how the disease affects the lungs.
Normally, the lungs take in oxygen with each breath and tiny air sacs called alveoli capture this oxygen and transfer it to nearby blood vessels. In this way, oxygen enters the bloodstream and reaches the rest of the body. The alveoli also absorb carbon dioxide from the blood, and this is exhaled.
When SARS-CoV-2 infects lung tissue, it spreads rapidly and may affect the epithelial cells lining the airways. The immune system
When this inflammatory immune response continues to happen, it inhibits the regular transfer of gases, including oxygen, in the lungs, and fluid can build up.
These factors combined can make it difficult to breathe.
Each person with COVID-19 experiences it differently — and not all breathing issues mean that the disease is serious.
Shortness of breath may be mild, similar to that resulting from a cold or the flu. In this case, it is important to stay home and rest.
If any breathing issue seems serious, especially if it rapidly worsens, seek medical attention. Some
- needing to pant or catch the breath constantly
- being unable to fill the lungs with air
- having pain in the chest while breathing
- having pain while holding the breath or being unable to do so
- coughing while inhaling
These may indicate a more severe infection that requires treatment in a hospital.
- have trouble breathing
- feel persistent pressure or pain in the chest
- have a pale or bluish tint to their lips, face, or nails
- demonstrate confusion
- find it difficult to wake up or stay awake
Therapies for severe cases
A person with severe COVID-19 may need supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation. The latter involves inserting a tube into a person’s windpipe. The tube is connected to a machine called a ventilator that helps the person breathe.
Other treatments aim to help control the infection and address problems involving the blood and the functioning of other organs.
The American Lung Association say that doing breathing exercises can help make the lungs work more efficiently. This may help a person with a mild case of COVID-19 that causes shortness of breath.
Here are a few strategies to try:
This involves breathing deliberately and slowly. Inhale through the nose and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Aim for each exhale to take at least twice as long as each inhale.
This involves actively engaging the belly and diaphragm while breathing, and it may help strengthen the diaphragm.
Breathe in through the nose. Try placing the hands on the belly to feel how it extends. Exhale slowly through the mouth, so that the exhalation lasts two to three times as long as the inhalation.
It is best to start practicing belly or pursed-lip breathing when the person can breathe most comfortably, such as while resting.
Lying on the front
Lying in a prone position, on the stomach with the head turned to one side, while resting
A prone position may particularly help people who have acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), which
It is important to monitor shortness of breath, as it may be mild initially but become severe and require emergency medical attention.
Severe shortness of breath may be a sign of continuing damage in the lungs. This can lead to ARDS and the need for more intensive intervention, such as mechanical ventilation.
After recovering from the initial infection, some people continue to experience COVID-19 symptoms for weeks or months. This is called long COVID, and it may involve shortness of breath.
An analysis from February 2021 indicates that
The extended effects of long COVID are still unclear, and ongoing monitoring, with checkups and blood tests, is key.
Doctors may recommend treatments and therapies to reduce the symptoms. This may include pulmonary rehabilitation and breathing exercises.
COVID-19 is not the only cause of shortness of breath. Other issues that may cause this and similar symptoms include:
The virus responsible for COVID-19 can infect the lungs, causing shortness of breath and other symptoms.
Shortness of breath can be mild, requiring home care, or severe, requiring treatment in a hospital.
If this symptom is serious or suddenly gets worse, seek medical attention right away.