What you need to know about COVID-19, Shortness of Breath and Other Health Concerns
Breathing deeply can be difficult if you have shortness of breath. It’s possible to feel tired or winded.
Shortness of breath, clinically known as Dyspnea, is one of the symptoms of COVID-19, a disease caused by the new coronavirus, SARS-CoV-2.
COVID-19 patients can experience shortness of breath in COVID-19 patients, a rare condition that causes this symptom.
Continue reading to learn more about this condition, how it is distinguished from other causes, and when to seek medical attention for shortness of breath due to the coronavirus.
How does shortness of breath feel?
Breathing difficulties can be caused by shortness of breath. You may feel like you are starving.
You may find it difficult to exhale fully or inhale. Deeper breaths require more effort and leave you feeling tired. It can feel as if you are breathing through a straw.
It can happen while you are active or asleep. It can happen gradually or abruptly.
Shortness of breath can be caused by strenuous or high-intensity workouts, extreme temperatures, or high altitudes. Anxiety can cause changes in your breathing pattern and rate.
What causes anxiety to cause shortness of breathing?
An acute situation of stress or anxiety may trigger your biological fight-or-flight response. Your sympathetic nervous system launches a series of physiological reactions in response to perceived danger.
Your heart rate may rise, your breathing may become shallower and rapid, and your vocal cords may contract when you attempt to breathe.
Your breathing becomes more rapid and shallower because your chest muscles do most of the work.
You can take deep, more satisfying breaths when you are relaxed.
Is shortness-of-breath one of the first signs of COVID-19
Shortness of breath due to COVID-19 usually develops within a few days following initial infection. Some people may not experience this symptom.
It usually appears between days 4 and 10 during the disease. It usually follows milder symptoms such as:
- low-grade fever
- Body aches
During a clinic visit, doctors’ observations of shortness of breath and sudden drops in oxygen saturation may help distinguish COVID-19 from common conditions.
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How common are shortness of breath and COVID-19?
COVID-19 is usually diagnosed by shortness of breath; however, if combined with other symptoms like fever or cough, the chances of getting an infection with SARS/CoV-2 increase.
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 31-40% of those with COVID-19 confirmed cases had reported shortness of breathing.
Other symptoms can be seen as follows:
- Fever: 83-99 percent
- The cough: Between 59 and 82 percent
- Fatigue: Between 44 and 70 percent
- Loss of appetite: 40-84 percent
- Production of sputum: 28-33 percent
- Muscle and body pains: 11 to 35%
Another CDC study of confirmed cases from the United States showed that shortness of breath was common in approximately 43 percent of symptomatic adults and 13 percent of symptomatic kids.
What causes COVID-19 to cause breathing problems?
Healthy lungs allow oxygen to cross the alveoli and into nearby blood vessels called capillaries. This is where oxygen travels to the rest of your body.
COVID-19 disrupts normal oxygen transport. White blood cells secrete inflammatory molecules known as chemokines and cytokines that in turn mobilize more immune cells to kill SARS/CoV-2-infected cells.
This ongoing battle between your immune system, the virus and your body leaves behind pus. It is made up of excess fluid and dead cells (debris) in your lungs.
It can cause symptoms like coughing, fever, shortness or no breath.
If you are:
- Are 65 years old or older
- Diabetes, COPD or Cardiovascular Disease
- Have a compromised immune System
What should you be paying attention to
A review of 13 studies published by the Journal of Infection found that shortness of breath is associated with a higher risk of developing severe and critical diseases using COVID-19.
Close monitoring at home may be recommended for mild cases of shortness of breath. However, it is best to contact your primary care physician if you are unsure.
A critical condition called hypoxia can be caused by persistent or worsening breathlessness.
If you cannot breathe properly, your oxygen saturation levels can drop below 90%. This can cause your brain to lose oxygen. This can lead to confusion and lethargy, and other mental disturbances.
In extreme cases, oxygen levels that fall below 80 percent can cause damage to vital organs.
Persistent shortness of breath can signify respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS ). This is a progressive lung disease in which fluid fills your lungs.
As stiffened, fluid-filled lungs make breathing more difficult, ARDS can cause breathing difficulties. Sometimes, mechanical ventilation may be required to assist with breathing.
When should you seek medical care?
Here are some warning signs that could indicate ARDS progression or other serious respiratory conditions.
- Rapid, difficult breathing
- Pain, tightness or discomfort in the chest or upper abdomen
- Blue or discolored lips or skin, nails or skin
- A high fever
- Low blood pressure
- Mental confusion
- A rapid or weak pulse
- Cold feet or hands
Get immediate medical attention if you experience any of these symptoms or any other serious signs. Call your doctor or hospital ahead of time to get instructions.
COVID-19 and lung damage
COVID-19 can cause some lung damage that may take time to heal. In other cases, COVID-19 can cause chronic lung problems.
This can lead to scar tissue pulmonary fibrosis. Scarring can further stiffen the lungs, making it more difficult to breathe.
Other conditions that could cause shortness of breath
Other than COVID-19 and other conditions that can cause shortness of breath, many other factors can also trigger shortness. These are the most common causes:
- Asthma. The obstructive pulmonary disease causes your lining to swell, muscles nearby to tighten and mucus buildup in your airways. This reduces the airflow to your lungs.
- Chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD) is a progressive group of lung diseases. The most common are emphysema, chronic bronchitis and emphysema. They can reduce your outward airflow or cause swelling and narrowing in the bronchial tubes.
- Myocardial Infarction. Also called a Heart attack, this can cause a decrease in blood flow and oxygen supply to your heart and lungs. This can cause congestion, which can make it difficult to breathe.
- Interstitial pulmonary disease (ILD). ILD encompasses more than 200 conditions that impact the airways, blood vessels and air sacs in your lungs. ILD can cause scarring and inflammation in the air sacs of your lungs. This makes it more difficult for your lungs to expand.
The bottom line
A variety of medical conditions can cause shortness of breath. It’s unlikely that shortness of breath is a sign of COVID-19. If it is accompanied by a fever, cough or body ache, shortness of breath could be a sign of COVID-19.
Shortness of breath is a common side effect of the coronavirus infection. It usually occurs between 4 and 10 days.
Sometimes, shortness of breath is temporary and may not last for long. In other cases, shortness of breath can lead to ARDS, pneumonia, or multi-organ dysfunction. These complications can be life-threatening.
It would be best to take all episodes of shortness of breath seriously. If you have concerns regarding treating this condition, be sure to contact your doctor immediately.