Earlier this month, CNN anchor Chris Cuomo was in an active fight against the novel coronavirus.
He described a relentless fever, wild dreams and difficulty breathing. Then a pulmonary expert told him he needed to “fight” back by stretching his torso and breathing in deeply.
Cuomo said he changed his approach to include deep breathing. “You have got to do the things to beat the virus, you have got to breathe deep when it hurts and it hurts,” he said on his show.
The CNN journalist wasn’t the first person to adopt a deep breathing regimen. Just days earlier, “Harry Potter” author J.K. Rowling shared a video where physician Sarfaraz Munshi from Queens Hospital in the U.K. detailed a breathing technique he said may keep COVID-19 patients from developing secondary pneumonia.
After coming down with COVID-19 symptoms, Rowling explained that her husband had advised her to follow the steps in the video. “I’m fully recovered & technique helped a lot,” she tweeted.
In the video, Munshi demonstrates how to breathe in deeply, hold one’s breath for five seconds at the top of the inhale, and then breathe out. He recommends two cycles of six breaths, where you complete a big cough on the sixth breath. Munshi also recommends laying on the stomach instead of the back to improve lung function. The idea is to open up your lungs’ air sacs.
Seems like simple solutions to complex symptoms, right? Here’s what doctors want you to know about the technique.
Deep breathing can help lung function when you’re sick.
When your lungs are inflamed, whether from COVID-19 or another condition, some of the air sacs that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide are replaced with fluid and debris, according to Vandana Patel, a board-certified pulmonologist at Bon Secours Mercy Medical Group in Portsmouth, Virginia, and clinical adviser for Cabinet Health.
“These areas are now less functional for the work of gas exchange,” she said.
When you practice the deep breathing technique like in Munshi’s video, you are pushing air into your lungs, Patel said. As you hold your breath at the end of the exhale, you are “splinting open the air sac, increasing the surface area for gas exchange within your lungs,” she explained, adding that this helps to open collapsed air sacs in the lungs and improve oxygen levels in the body.
Ventilators perform a similar function in patients who are not healthy enough to breathe efficiently on their own, Patel said.
Voluntary breathing exercises have long been useful for people with different pulmonary conditions, added Nikita Desai, a pulmonologist at Cleveland Clinic.
“If you have a chronic lung disease, like asthma or COPD, breathing can be helpful in getting control of that chronic condition,” she said. “Exercise programs are called pulmonary rehabilitation. For patients, we often recommend things like pursed lip breathing to control breath.”
Desai said this often slows breathing to get more air into the lungs.
The technique also helps with anxiety and control during a scary situation.
Desai said deep breathing may focus a patient’s energy and offer a sense of control over their care, which may, in turn, improve outcomes, especially when used in conjunction with other at-home care tactics.
“What I think this video is saying is, ‘Hey, if you are at home, these deep breathing exercises may help you,’” Desai said. “A lot of feeling better is managing anxiety. If you are anxious, you are going to be short of breath.”
Deep breathing exercises help to manage stress for the same reason. Not only can the practice bring your mind into the present moment, but it can also physically signal your nervous system to calm down. That can be useful in worrisome situations like dealing with the coronavirus.
“Any kind of deep breathing, or a 10-minute meditation, or moment of mindfulness, may be extremely beneficial,” Desai said.
Don’t expect deep breathing to cure COVID-19.
All that said, take this deep breathing technique with a grain of salt when it comes to the coronavirus.
Desai said a lot of these pulmonary regimens may be done when patients are very ill in the hospital. But she does not think it is a magic bullet that will stop COVID-19 from progressing.
“With this disease, there is a sense of everyone lacking control over this situation,” Desai said. “If people want to do this and it makes them feel better, great. But it won’t prevent you from COVID and it won’t necessarily help you recover.” (Just like a ventilator doesn’t necessarily cure a coronavirus patient, either.)
“Any kind of deep breathing, or a 10-minute meditation, or moment of mindfulness, may be extremely beneficial,” says pulmonologist Nikita Desai.
There are other ways to ease coronavirus symptoms at home.
If you or a loved one comes down with COVID-19 symptoms and you can manage them at home, Patel recommends deep breathing as part of a greater symptom-treatment regimen.
Clinically, it is “a proven method to help improve lung function,” Patel said, noting that it may allow more air to infiltrate the lung tissue, easing some symptoms.
Desai is certainly not opposed to the technique — but only if it makes you feel better. “If the deep breathing makes you dizzy or lightheaded, then it’s too much,” she said.
It is also important to practice anxiety-reducing self-care, Desai noted. If you are anxious about having shortness of breath, that anxiety will only exacerbate the feeling that you can’t breathe. Deep breathing exercises can help with that.
“If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters and you won’t be able to think about anything else,” Desai said. Since COVID-19 symptoms can last a long time, it is really critical to pay attention to your mind as well as your body.
Beyond that, make sure to “rest and drink plenty of fluids,” Patel noted. “Even a warm shower or having a humidifier nearby can help manage symptoms. Pain relievers such as acetaminophen and cough suppressants can help, as well.”
Just make sure to be a label-reader when you are taking over-the-counter medications. Don’t forget that cough suppressants and cold and sinus medications can contain acetaminophen, too — which you might forget if you don’t regularly read the active ingredient label.
“In most doses you might take acetaminophen, you’ll be OK. But if you do that plus a cold medication with acetaminophen, you could overdose or cause harm,” said Desai. “There is so much as too much of an otherwise benign thing.”
If you’re concerned about what OTC medication doses are right for you, call your primary care physician or a pharmacist for guidance. And just in general, it’s always a good idea to stay in touch with your doctor as you monitor your symptoms.