Coronavirus and Shortness of Breath: What Does It Feel Like? (2023)

Coronavirus and Shortness of Breath: What Does It Feel Like? (1)Share on Pinterest

Shortness of breath can make it hard to breathe deeply. You may feel winded, or as if you can’t get enough air into your lungs.

Known clinically as dyspnea, shortness of breath is one of the hallmark symptoms of COVID-19, the disease that’s caused by the new coronavirus known as SARS-CoV-2.

Unlike many other conditions that can cause shortness of breath, this symptom can persist and quickly escalate in people with COVID-19.

Keep reading to learn more about what to watch out for with this symptom, how to differentiate it from other causes, and when to get medical attention for shortness of breath caused by the new coronavirus.

Shortness of breath can make it hard to breathe. It can leave you gasping for air.

Your chest may feel too tight to inhale or exhale fully. Each shallow breath takes greater effort and leaves you feeling winded. It can feel like you’re breathing through a straw.

It may happen when you’re active or resting. It can come on gradually or suddenly.

High intensity or strenuous workouts, extreme temperatures, and high altitudes can all cause shortness of breath. Anxiety can also lead to changes in your breathing rate and pattern.

How does anxiety affect shortness of breath?

Acute stress or anxiety can trigger your biological fight-or-flight response. Your sympathetic nervous system reacts by launching a cascade of physiological responses in response to a perceived threat.

For instance, your heart may race, your breathing may become rapid and shallow, and your vocal cords may constrict when you try to breathe.

(Video) What Does Shortness of Breath and Coronavirus Feel Like?

The reason your breathing becomes faster and more shallow is because the muscles in your chest take over much of the work of breathing.

When you’re more relaxed, you breathe mostly with the help of your diaphragm, which allows you to take deeper, fuller breaths.

COVID-19-related shortness of breath usually occurs a few days after initial infection. However, some people may not develop this symptom at all.

On average, it sets in between day 4 and 10 of the disease course. It typically follows milder symptoms, such as:

  • low-grade fever
  • fatigue
  • body aches

According to doctors’ observations while working in a clinic, the onset of shortness of breath, along with sudden drops in oxygen saturation after very little exertion, may help clinicians distinguish COVID-19 from other common illnesses.

How common is shortness of breath with COVID-19?

(Video) Shortness of breath: Is it stress, anxiety or a symptom of COVID-19?

Shortness of breath on its own usually rules out COVID-19. But when it occurs with other key symptoms, such as fever and cough, the likelihood of having an infection with SARS-CoV-2 increases.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that 31 to 40 percent of people with confirmed cases of COVID-19 have experienced shortness of breath.

The occurrence of other symptoms is as follows:

  • fever: 83 to 99 percent
  • cough: 59 to 82 percent
  • fatigue: 44 to 70 percent
  • loss of appetite: 40 to 84 percent
  • sputum production: 28 to 33 percent
  • muscle, body aches: 11 to 35 percent

Another CDC study of confirmed cases in the United States found that shortness of breath occurred in about 43 percent of symptomatic adults and 13 percent of symptomatic children.

In healthy lungs, oxygen crosses the alveoli into tiny, nearby blood vessels known as capillaries. From here, oxygen is transported to the rest of your body.

But with COVID-19, the immune response disrupts normal oxygen transfer. White blood cells release inflammatory molecules called chemokines or cytokines, which in turn rally more immune cells to kill SARS-CoV-2-infected cells.

The fallout from this ongoing battle between your immune system and the virus leaves behind pus, which is made up of excess fluid and dead cells (debris) in your lungs.

This results in respiratory tract symptoms such as coughing, fever, and shortness of breath.

You may be at a higher risk for developing breathing issues with COVID-19 if you:

  • are 65 or older
  • smoke
  • have diabetes, COPD, or cardiovascular disease
  • have a compromised immune system

According to a review of 13 studies published in the Journal of Infection, having shortness of breath poses a greater risk of severe and critical disease outcomes with COVID-19.

While close monitoring at home is often recommended for mild cases of breath shortness, the safest course of action is to call your primary care doctor if you’re unsure of what to do.

Persistent or worsening shortness of breath can lead to a critical health condition known as hypoxia.

When you can’t breathe properly, it can cause your oxygen saturation levels to drop below 90 percent. This can deprive your brain of oxygen. When this happens, confusion, lethargy, and other mental disruptions may occur.

In severe cases, if oxygen levels dip to around 80 percent or lower, there’s an increased risk of damage to vital organs.

Ongoing shortness of breath is a symptom of pneumonia, which can progress to acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS). This is a progressive type of lung failure in which fluid fills up the air sacs in your lungs.

With ARDS, breathing becomes increasingly difficult as stiff, fluid-filled lungs have a harder time expanding and contracting. In some cases, help breathing with mechanical ventilation is needed.

When to get medical care

Below are some of the warning signs to watch out for that may indicate a progression to ARDS or other serious respiratory conditions:

  • rapid, labored breathing
  • pain, tightness, or discomfort in your chest or upper abdomen
  • blue or discolored lips, nails, or skin
  • a high fever
  • low blood pressure
  • mental confusion
  • a rapid or weak pulse
  • cold hands or feet

Get immediate medical attention if you have these or other serious symptoms. If possible, call your doctor or hospital in advance so they can give you instructions on what to do.

(Video) Many experience shortness of breath, fatigue after Covid-19

COVID-19 and lung damage

(Video) Breathlessness after COVID-19 - helpful techniques

Some lung damage caused by COVID-19 may slowly and fully heal. But in other cases, people who recover from COVID-19 may face chronic lung problems.

These lung injuries may cause the formation of scar tissue known as pulmonary fibrosis. Scarring further stiffens the lungs and makes it harder to breathe.

Besides COVID-19, many other health conditions can trigger shortness of breath. Here are some of the most common:

  • Asthma. This obstructive lung disease causes the lining of your airways to swell, nearby muscles to tighten, and mucus to build up in your airways. This blocks the amount of air that can pass into your lungs.
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). COPD is a group of progressive lung diseases, the most common of which are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. They can restrict your outward airflow, or lead to swelling and narrowing of the bronchial tubes, as well as mucus buildup.
  • Myocardial infarction. Also known as a heart attack, it can decrease blood and oxygen flow to and from your heart and lungs. This can lead to congestion in these organs, making it harder to breathe.
  • Interstitial lung disease (ILD). ILD includes more than 200 conditions that affect the airways, blood vessels, and air sacs inside your lungs. ILD leads to scarring and inflammation around the air sacs in your lungs, which makes it harder for your lungs to expand.

A variety of health conditions can trigger shortness of breath. On its own, it’s unlikely to be a symptom of COVID-19. Shortness of breath is more likely to be a warning sign of COVID-19 if it’s accompanied by a fever, cough, or body aches.

On average, shortness of breath tends to set in around 4 to 10 days after you contract an infection with the new coronavirus.

Shortness of breath may be mild and not last long. But, in other cases, it may lead to pneumonia, ARDS, and multi-organ dysfunction or failure. These are potentially life threatening complications.

All episodes of shortness of breath must be taken seriously. Be sure to call your doctor right away if you have any concerns about how to manage this symptom.


How do you tell if Covid has affected your lungs? ›

COVID pneumonia is a lung infection caused by SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
What are the symptoms of COVID pneumonia?
  1. Shortness of breath (dyspnea) or trouble breathing.
  2. Confusion.
  3. Extreme fatigue/tiredness.
  4. Cough.
  5. Fever.
  6. Chest pain or tightness.
  7. Bluish lips, skin or nails (cyanosis).
10 Aug 2022

Is shortness of breath one of the first symptoms of Covid? ›

Shortness of breath is usually not an early symptom of COVID-19. Data suggests that feeling breathless usually comes on over the course of a week after other symptoms start.

When should I be concerned about shortness of breath? ›

Seek emergency medical care if your shortness of breath is accompanied by chest pain, fainting, nausea, a bluish tinge to lips or nails, or a change in mental alertness — as these may be signs of a heart attack or pulmonary embolism.

How do you test for breathlessness? ›

Spirometry is a simple test used to help diagnose and monitor certain lung conditions by measuring how much air you can breathe out in one forced breath. It's carried out using a device called a spirometer, which is a small machine attached by a cable to a mouthpiece.

How do I clear my lungs of COVID? ›

Breathe out fully. Take a small breath in through your mouth, nose or both and hold. On top of the air already in your lungs, take another small breath.
Breath stacking technique
  1. help expand your lungs.
  2. keep the muscles flexible.
  3. help you have a stronger cough to clear your phlegm.

How can I test my lung capacity at home? ›

Here's the Home Solution

A common method is using a Peak Flow Meter, a handheld device that measures the strength of your breath. You simply breathe into one end and the meter instantly shows a reading on a scale, typically in liters per minute (lpm).

What oxygen level is too low COVID? ›

You should start oxygen therapy on any COVID-19 patient with an oxygen saturation below 90 percent, even if they show no physical signs of a low oxygen level. If the patient has any warning signs of low oxygen levels, start oxygen therapy immediately.

Can COVID get worse after a week? ›

A person may have mild symptoms for about one week, then worsen rapidly. Let your doctor know if your symptoms quickly worsen over a short period of time.

Why am I so short of breath if my oxygen is OK? ›

Shortness of breath is often a symptom of heart and lung problems. But it can also be a sign of other conditions like asthma, allergies or anxiety. Intense exercise or having a cold can also make you feel breathless.

What are 3 possible signs of difficulty breathing? ›

Signs of Respiratory Distress
  • Breathing rate. An increase in the number of breaths per minute may mean that a person is having trouble breathing or not getting enough oxygen.
  • Color changes. ...
  • Grunting. ...
  • Nose flaring. ...
  • Retractions. ...
  • Sweating. ...
  • Wheezing. ...
  • Body position.

How do I know if my shortness of breath is lung related? ›

Tests to Diagnose Shortness of Breath
  1. Chest X-ray. It can show the doctor signs of conditions such as pneumonia or other heart and lung problems. ...
  2. Oxygen test. Also called pulse oximetry, this helps your doctor measure how much oxygen is in your blood. ...
  3. Electrocardiography (EKG).
14 Aug 2022

What do you do when your chest feels tight on Covid? ›

Call a doctor or hospital right away if you have any of these issues: Trouble breathing. Constant pain or pressure in your chest.

What will doctor do for shortness of breath? ›

Your doctor may prescribe one of the following medications, depending on the underlying cause of the dyspnea: Bronchodilators to open airways. Steroids to reduce swelling. Pain medications.

How do hospitals treat shortness of breath? ›

Standard treatments for respiratory distress include oxygen, albuterol nebulization (with or without ipratropium), nitroglycerin, Lasix, morphine and continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) or endotracheal (ET) intubation, depending on the presumed cause of distress.

What is the most common cause of shortness of breath? ›

Most cases of shortness of breath are due to heart or lung conditions. Your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your tissues and removing carbon dioxide, and problems with either of these processes affect your breathing.

What are the signs of COVID getting better? ›

If you have COVID-19
  • At least five days have passed since your symptoms started. ...
  • At least 24 hours have passed with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medication on day six.
  • Other symptoms are improving — loss of taste and smell might last for weeks or months after recovery but shouldn't delay ending isolation.

What does a COVID cough feel like? ›

A common symptom of COVID-19 is a dry cough, which is also known as an unproductive cough (a cough that doesn't produce any phlegm or mucus). Most people with dry cough experience it as a tickle in their throat or as irritation in their lungs.

What color mucus is COVID? ›

Green and cloudy: viral or bacterial infection

A lot of the symptoms of viral infections – fever, cough, headache, loss of smell – overlap for COVID-19 and other viral infections like the flu, respiratory syncytial virus and the common cold. That's why COVID-19 testing and seeing a doctor is so important.

What are the first signs of lung problems? ›

Common signs are:
  • Trouble breathing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling like you're not getting enough air.
  • Decreased ability to exercise.
  • A cough that won't go away.
  • Coughing up blood or mucus.
  • Pain or discomfort when breathing in or out.
20 Aug 2021

What are the early warning signs of lung disease? ›

Common Symptoms
  • Breathlessness. Breathlessness is a common symptom of lung disease, however many people put breathlessness down to ageing, being overweight or unfit. ...
  • Persistent cough. Coughing is very common. ...
  • Weight loss. ...
  • Fatigue. ...
  • Wheeze. ...
  • Chest infections. ...
  • Mucus production. ...
  • Coughing up blood.

How do I know if something is wrong with my lungs? ›

Wheezing: Noisy breathing or wheezing is a sign that something unusual is blocking your lungs' airways or making them too narrow. Coughing up blood: If you are coughing up blood, it may be coming from your lungs or upper respiratory tract. Wherever it's coming from, it signals a health problem.

At what oxygen level should I go to the hospital? ›

90% or less This oxygen level is very concerning and may indicate a severe medical problem. Call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room immediately.

When should I worry about oxygen level with Covid? ›

If your home SpO2 reading is lower than 95%, call your health care provider.

How can I check my oxygen level without a oximeter? ›

You are supposed to count the number of breaths you are taking in a minute. To do this, place your hand on your chest and count the number of times you breathe. If your respiratory rate is more than 30, you might have a low oxygen level.

When does Covid peak in your body? ›

Some studies seem to show that it does, but others seem to show less of an effect. What does seem clear is that people with symptoms of COVID-19 are more contagious. And that the viral load tends to peak in the week after their symptoms first appear.

How do you know if Covid is getting worse? ›

you're feeling gradually more unwell or more breathless. you have difficulty breathing when you stand up or move around. you feel very weak, achy or tired. you're shaking or shivering.

How long does Omicron symptoms last? ›

How long do omicron symptoms last? Most people who test positive with any variant of COVID-19 typically experience some symptoms for a couple weeks.

What helps shortness of breath at home? ›

Here are nine home treatments you can use to alleviate your shortness of breath:
  1. Pursed-lip breathing. Share on Pinterest. ...
  2. Sitting forward. Share on Pinterest. ...
  3. Sitting forward supported by a table. ...
  4. Standing with supported back. ...
  5. Standing with supported arms. ...
  6. Sleeping in a relaxed position. ...
  7. Diaphragmatic breathing. ...
  8. Using a fan.

How do you know if you have lack of oxygen? ›

When your blood oxygen falls below a certain level, you might experience shortness of breath, headache, and confusion or restlessness. Common causes of hypoxemia include: Anemia.

What happens when oxygen level is 88 in Covid? ›

problem. Call 911 or go to your nearest emergency room immediately. You may need an urgent x-ray or heart test. Go to the emergency room if your oxygen level falls below 88% while walking briskly for 1 minute and continues below 88% for 5 minutes while resting.

What does labored breathing look like? ›

The chest appears to sink in just below the neck and/or under the breastbone with each breath — one way of trying to bring more air into the lungs. Sweating. There may be increased sweat on the head, but the skin does not feel warm to the touch. More often, the skin may feel cool or clammy.

What does shallow breathing look like? ›

“Technically, shallow breathing means shorter inhaling and exhaling than normal breathing but with an equal cadence. While in shortness of breath, inhalation is usually much shorter than exhalation,” Dr. Gupta says.

What does distressed breathing look like? ›

Retractions - Check to see if the chest pulls in with each breath, especially around the collarbone and around the ribs. Nasal flaring - Check to see if nostrils widen when breathing in. (“Ugh” sound), wheezing or like mucus is in the throat. Clammy skin – Feel your child's skin to see if it is cool but also sweaty.

How do you know if you have shortness of breath anxiety or heart problems? ›

"Chest pain, rapid heartbeat and breathlessness may result when an insufficient amount of blood reaches the heart muscle," says Tung. (See "Symptoms" below.) One of the key distinctions between the two is that a heart attack often develops during physical exertion, whereas a panic attack can occur at rest.

Why do I have sudden shortness of breath? ›

Sudden onset of shortness of breath may indicate something quite serious requiring immediate medical attention, such as a heart attack, a blood clot in the lungs or a problem with the aorta.

How do I know if Covid is in my lungs? ›

COVID pneumonia is a lung infection caused by SARS CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19.
Symptoms and Causes
  1. Shortness of breath (dyspnea) or trouble breathing.
  2. Confusion.
  3. Extreme fatigue/tiredness.
  4. Cough.
  5. Fever.
  6. Chest pain or tightness.
  7. Bluish lips, skin or nails (cyanosis).
10 Aug 2022

Does Covid cough make you wheeze? ›

Common symptoms of COVID-19 respiratory infections in the airways and lungs may include severe cough that produces mucous, shortness of breath, chest tightness and wheezing when you exhale.

Does Covid get better after 5 days? ›

If you test positive for COVID-19 and have no symptoms – you may end after day 5. If you test positive for COVID-19 and have symptoms – you may end after day 5 if: You are fever-free for 24 hours (without the use of fever-reducing medication) Your symptoms are improving.

How do I know if I have damaged my lungs? ›

Common signs are:
  1. Trouble breathing.
  2. Shortness of breath.
  3. Feeling like you're not getting enough air.
  4. Decreased ability to exercise.
  5. A cough that won't go away.
  6. Coughing up blood or mucus.
  7. Pain or discomfort when breathing in or out.
20 Aug 2021

How do you know if you have a lung infection? ›

Fever, sweating and shaking chills. Shortness of breath. Rapid, shallow breathing. Sharp or stabbing chest pain that gets worse when you breathe deeply or cough.

How do you know if you have fluid in your lungs? ›

  1. Difficulty breathing (dyspnea) or extreme shortness of breath that worsens with activity or when lying down.
  2. A feeling of suffocating or drowning that worsens when lying down.
  3. A cough that produces frothy sputum that may have blood in it.
  4. A rapid, irregular heartbeat (palpitations)
27 May 2022

What happen to lung after COVID? ›

What does COVID do to lungs? COVID-19 can cause lung complications such as pneumonia and, in the most severe cases, acute respiratory distress syndrome, or ARDS. Sepsis, another possible complication of COVID-19, can also cause lasting harm to the lungs and other organs.

What does Covid chest pain feel like? ›

Tightness, a squeezing sensation, pain or pressure in the chest that doesn't go away after a few minutes, or stops and then returns. Pain or discomfort in your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach. Shortness of breath. Lightheadedness.

Where do you feel lung pain? ›

Lung pain is often felt when you breathe in and out, either on one or both sides of your chest. Technically, the pain isn't coming from inside the lungs, since they have very few pain receptors. Instead, the pain may come from the lining of the lungs, which does have pain receptors.

How do you know if you have breathing problems? ›

An increase in the number of breaths per minute may mean that a person is having trouble breathing or not getting enough oxygen. Color changes. A bluish color seen around the mouth, on the inside of the lips, or on the fingernails may happen when a person is not getting as much oxygen as needed.

What are the first warning signs of pneumonia? ›

  • Chest pain when you breathe or cough.
  • Confusion or changes in mental awareness (in adults age 65 and older)
  • Cough, which may produce phlegm.
  • Fatigue.
  • Fever, sweating and shaking chills.
  • Lower than normal body temperature (in adults older than age 65 and people with weak immune systems)
  • Nausea, vomiting or diarrhea.
13 Jun 2020

How do you check for a lung infection at home? ›

  1. Cough that produces thick mucus. Coughing helps to rid your body of the mucus produced from inflammation of the airways and lungs. ...
  2. Stabbing chest pains. Chest pain caused by a lung infection is often described as sharp or stabbing. ...
  3. Fever. ...
  4. Body aches. ...
  5. Runny nose. ...
  6. Shortness of breath. ...
  7. Fatigue. ...
  8. Wheezing.
8 Apr 2019

When does Covid get worse? ›

A person may have mild symptoms for about one week, then worsen rapidly. Let your doctor know if your symptoms quickly worsen over a short period of time.

Why am I short of breath but my oxygen saturation is good? ›

Shortness of breath does not always indicate that you are hypoxic. In other words, your level of dyspnea, or air hunger, does not always correlate with your oxygen saturation. This means that you can be short of breath, even extremely short of breath, even in the presence of normal oxygen saturation.

What do congested lungs sound like? ›

Wheeze-like sound heard when a person breathes. Usually it is due to a blockage of airflow in the windpipe (trachea) or in the back of the throat.

How long can you live with low oxygen level? ›

At the five-minute mark, death of brain cells -- and the severe brain damage that accompanies it -- becomes inevitable. Most people will die within 10 minutes of total oxygen deprivation.

Will Omicron affect lungs? ›

Mounting evidence from animal studies suggests that Omicron does not multiply readily in lung tissue, which can be badly damaged in people infected with other variants.

What are the signs of COVID getting better? ›

If you have COVID-19
  • At least five days have passed since your symptoms started. ...
  • At least 24 hours have passed with no fever without the use of fever-reducing medication on day six.
  • Other symptoms are improving — loss of taste and smell might last for weeks or months after recovery but shouldn't delay ending isolation.

Does your chest feel tight when you have COVID? ›

It can feel like you: Have tightness in your chest.


1. Surviving COVID 19 I 'couldn't catch my breath,' says New Yorker
(Al Arabiya English)
2. How to breathe if you have a respiratory infection like COVID-19
(American College of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology)
3. COVID-19 patient narrates her ordeal | Every breath is a battle | London | Coronavirus Pandemic
4. How do you know if shortness of breath is serious? | Apollo Hospitals
(Apollo Hospitals)
5. How COVID-19 Makes Breathing Difficult
(Stanford Center for Health Education)
6. Fit 29-year-old with coronavirus: 'I was really struggling to breathe'
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