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Could Deep Breathing Exercises Protect You From the Worst Symptoms of COVID-19?

illustration of lungs
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH - Blogs
By Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPHBoard-certified internistApril 16, 2020

Over the past couple of weeks, we've been hearing more and more stories from people who have survived COVID-19. Some of them, like JK Rowling, Chris Cuomo, and others, are claiming that lung exercises helped ease their discomfort and kept their symptoms from progressing.

But is there any evidence behind these claims?

The short answer is no. Some of these online recommendations are rooted in lung exercises that we know help with lung conditions like COPD. Others come from research in the hospital with people with pneumonia or on ventilators. But, while some of these techniques are proven to help with other lung-related conditions, we do not know what applies to the symptoms of COVID-19.  

That said, there are some techniques that are good for your lungs in general. And by improving your lung health, you could be in a better place to fight an infection or illness, including COVID-19.

The goal is to expand your lungs to full capacity and allow you to get rid of dead cells and mucous as you exhale.

  • Belly breathing. Sit with one hand on your chest and the other on your belly. Take a deep breath in through your nose and feel your belly move out, not your chest. Then slowly breathe out through pursed lips as if you are whistling. Feel your belly move back in. Repeat this a few times slowly, take your time and stay comfortable. This has the added bonus of relieving stress because it is relaxing.
  • Incentive spirometer. This is a device used by people after surgery or after a lung illness like pneumonia to take deep breaths that expand the lungs. It has a mouthpiece with tubing that connects with an air chamber that has an indicator inside it. As you inhale, the indicator rises to a goal marked on the spirometer and lets you know you’ve achieved the appropriate deep breath. You can purchase an incentive spirometer online – a quick Google search will bring up a wide choice of retailers. Before using, check with your doctor for what your goal breath volume should be.
  • Exercise. The same exercises that help with heart health can help your lungs. Aerobic activities like walking can raise your breathing rate, encourage deep breaths, and clear your lungs. Strength training exercises can strengthen your core and improve your posture to help your breathing muscles. Of course, don’t push yourself if you’re not feeling well.
  • Stop smoking and vaping. Now more than ever quitting is critical for improving lung health. People who smoke or vape are more likely to suffer serious complications of COVID-19 compared with nonsmokers. Resources are available to quit. 

Similar to heart healthy habits, these tips are lung healthy action steps you can take at home. They are meant as an add on to other healthy lifestyle habits you have in place.

If you have a mild illness of COVID-19, these techniques could complement your self-care at home. Talk to your doctor about what is best for you. Current recommendations include:

  • Rest. You can move around, but avoid stressful activities, and take breaks when you need.
  • Hydrate.  Drink plenty of fluids to avoid dehydration
  • Isolate. Stay home to protect others and stop the spread of the virus. If you must be around people, for example to go to a doctor’s visit, wear a facemask and keep a 6-foot minimum distance from others.
  • Medication. There’s no proven therapy for COVID-19, but your doctor may recommend medicines like acetaminophen to alleviate symptoms like a fever.
  • Monitor. Call your doctor if your symptoms worsen. Severe warning signs include trouble breathing, chest pressure or pain, confusion, or bluish lips or face.

To be clear, none of this substitutes your doctor’s advice for COVID-19 or your regular medical care. Call your doctor if you have any questions. Close communication is critical to a healthy outcome.

 

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About the Author
Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH

Arefa Cassoobhoy, MD, MPH is a board-certified internal medicine doctor and a WebMD Medical Editor. She is on the team that makes sure all WebMD content is medically correct, current and understandable. She sees patients at the Women’s Wellness Clinic at the Atlanta Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

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