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Why am I short of breath?

It is very common for people to feel breathless when they have COVID and when they are getting better from COVID. You can get breathless for lots of reasons. It can be scary and make you feel anxious. Breathlessness might stop you from doing your daily activities or you might find them more difficult. Return to Top

What does breathlessness feel like in everyday life?

  • Getting out of breath when you walk up and down the stairs
  • Getting out of breath when you go for a walk and having to stop a lot to catch your breath
  • You notice your shoulders going up and down as you breathe
  • You may find yourself gripping or holding onto things tightly to help yourself feel less breathless
  • Tightness in your chest
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How can I manage my breathlessness?

Planning Ahead

It is important to plan ahead and make sure you do not rush back into doing the activities and tasks you did before you got COVID. Plan your tasks and activities and think about the best time of day to do things.
  • When planning your day think about how much you can manage
  • Do not plan too many things in one day
  • Break down your larger tasks into smaller ones
  • Plan to do easy tasks and some difficult tasks too

Rest and pacing

  • Start off doing tasks for a short time then slowly do more tasks for a longer time as you get better
  • Give yourself time to relax and rest – this can help you feel in control of your breathlessness
  • Take your time when you are doing a task
  • Rest before you get tired – this will help to save your energy
  • Take a lot of short breaks rather than a few long breaks
  • Even when tasks are difficult do not stop them altogether
  • Carry on doing things that make you feel breathless because this will make your muscles stronger – if you feel worse or your breathlessness increases, you may need to reduce the activities and your healthcare professional can advise you on this
  • If you use support to walk, such as a stick or a frame, you can lean on it when you feel breathless to help you catch your breath
It’s important to remember: We all get breathless and short of breath when we do exercise.

Learn more about:

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Breathing exercises

Remember that your breathing will be better on some days and worse on other days. If you do these breathing exercises regularly they should help your breathing to get better over time. You can learn to have better control of your breathing when:
  • You are moving around
  • After you have carried out a task

How can I control my breathing?

The following exercise can help you to breathe gently with the smallest amount of effort:
  • Practice when you are sitting first
  • Put one hand on your chest and the other hand your stomach
  • Keep your mouth closed and slowly breathe in and out through your nose
  • If this is too hard, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth
  • If you are relaxed, you will be able to take a deep breath and you will feel your stomach push out
  • If you are controlling your breathing then the hand on your chest should hardly move
  • When you breathe out your stomach will gently move back
  • Every time you breathe out try to feel more relaxed
  • Try to breathe more slowly every time you do this exercise
When you can easily do this task sitting down, try it out when you are doing your daily tasks. Relaxation can also give you a sense of control over feelings or problems such as breathlessness. Try to give yourself time to relax and rest. There is another breathing exercise that can help you control your breathing and relax. This is called the breathing rectangle method:
  • This should be done sitting down in comfortable chair
  • Look for a rectangle shape such as a door, window, picture or book
  • Follow the sides of the rectangle with your eyes as you breathe in and out using the diagram below as a guide
  • Gently slow the speed that your eyes move round the rectangle
  • Stop at each corner to slow your breathing breath in out

When you breathe out this should be twice as long as when you breathe in.

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    Top Tips

    • Try wiping a cool wet flannel over your nose and cheeks – this sometimes helps reduce the feeling of breathlessness
    • It is a good idea to open windows to get fresh air
    • If you have a fan at home, you can sit by an open window and have the fan near to you but do not point it directly at your face
    • Focus on your daily progress and remember everyone’s recovery journey is different
    • Be kind to yourself – some days will be better than others so take each day as it comes and do what you can based on how you feel each day
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    If I get very breathless with daily activities, what can I do?

    • Choose a position to help reduce your work of breathing and effort (see images below)
    • Try and support your arms rather than gripping them
    • Try to stay calm, stop, relax your shoulders and use the breathing control methods above
    • When walking, putting your hands in your pockets or tucking your thumbs into your belt loop or resting your hands on your handbag can help keep your shoulders from becoming tense and rising up
    • If you are getting worse, increased breathlessness, or no better, then contact your healthcare professional, hospital team or GP
    • If you get suddenly short of breath, especially if with chest pain seek urgent medical advice via 999/111
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