You’ve probably heard by now that symptoms of COVID-19, the respiratory illness caused by the novel coronavirus, are similar to the flu. But it does have some distinguishing characteristics, which includes feeling a shortness of breath.
But, if you’re a generally healthy person, it’s unlikely that you’ve experienced this in your day-to-day life and the term may feel a bit confusing.
That naturally raises some questions about what, exactly, shortness of breath feels like. Is it similar to getting winded after going hard on the treadmill or is it something else entirely? Does it come and go, or is it constant? We asked doctors to break it all down.
What does shortness of breath feel like, exactly?
There is actually a medical term for shortness of breath: dyspnea. It’s usually described as an intense tightening in your chest, feeling like you’re “hungry” for air, having difficulty breathing, or feeling breathless, the American Lung Association (ALA) says. “It feels like you’re not getting enough air,” says David Cutler, M.D., a family medicine physician at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, Calif.
People can experience shortness of breath when they walk, climb stairs, run, or even when they stand still, the ALA says. “You can experience it sometimes, all the time, and it can be off and on,” Dr. Cutler says.
What kind of conditions usually cause shortness of breath?
Plenty of other illnesses beyond COVID-19 can cause this symptom. Most shortness of breath is due to heart and lung conditions, given that your heart and lungs are involved in transporting oxygen to your body and removing carbon dioxide, the ALA explains. Problems with either of these things can impact your breathing. The ALA specifically calls out these conditions that can lead to shortness of breath:
- Flares in chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- Allergic reactions
- Carbon monoxide poisoning
- Heart attacks
- Low blood pressure
- Pneumonia (a common COVID-19 and flu complication)
- A blockage in your throat
- Heart failure
- An enlarged heart
- Abnormal heart beats
- Inhaling a foreign object into your lungs
- Guillain-Barré Syndrome
- Myasthenia gravis (a condition that causes weakness of certain muscles)
- A blood clot in the lungs
How can you tell if you’re truly experiencing shortness of breath?
There are a few things you can do to suss out whether you’re experiencing shortness of breath. One is seeing how well you can breathe when you talk. “When I have a patient who is not able to string several words together without taking a breath, I worry that they’re experiencing shortness of breath,” Dr. Boling says.
Also, if you’re just sitting around, watching TV, and you feel like you can’t get enough air, you might be experiencing shortness of breath, she says. The same is true if you’ve always been able to walk around your place or do chores with no problem and suddenly need to catch your breath in the process, says Purvi Parikh, M.D., an allergist with Allergy & Asthma Network.
If you have an underlying condition and are especially concerned, a monitor called a pulse oximeter—a device that measures the amount of oxygen in your blood—can also help give some perspective, Dr. Cutler says. “You can buy one at your local drugstore for about $20,” he says.
These devices aren’t perfect, but Dr. Cutler says it can be a “good screening tool” for you. “If the number is normal, meaning above 95, it’s a good reassurance that there is nothing going on,” he says. But if it’s less than 95 and you just don’t feel right, it’s a good idea to call your doctor, Dr. Cutler says.
When should you go to the hospital for shortness of breath?
Right now, it’s not a good idea to think of the hospital as your first line of defense if you’re not in an actual emergency situation. “You can be exposed to coronavirus at the hospital,” Dr. Boling points out. If you’re having shortness of breath but you generally feel OK, she recommends calling your primary care physician to discuss your symptoms. This is true even if you think you have COVID-19, because it’s crucial to try to help prevent the spread of the virus to others.
Right now, you may only qualify for a COVID-19 test if you feel other symptoms associated with illness alongside shortness of breath, such as fever, dry cough, sputum production, or a sore throat. This is especially true if you’ve traveled to a area with a high number of cases or have been directly in contact with someone who has been diagnosed with COVID-19.
Dr. Parikh says you should call your doctor ASAP or head to the emergency room if have shortness of breath alongside the following:
- Chest pain or tightness
- Lips turning blue
- Feeling lightheaded
- Feeling like you can’t get enough air in
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