Her tweet about the technique went viral—is it safe for anyone with coronavirus to try?

By Claire Gillespie
Updated April 09, 2020
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We’re all doing everything we can to stay healthy during the coronavirus pandemic. For people with COVID-19 symptoms who are caring for themselves at home, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) advises rest, hydration, taking precautionary measures (like isolating from others and not sharing personal items), and continuing to monitor your symptoms. 

But that doesn’t mean medical professionals don’t have their own ideas for how to ease symptoms and help battle the coronavirus. One doctor’s method has gone viral, thanks to an endorsement on social media from Harry Potter creator J.K. Rowling and CNN anchor Chris Cuomo.

In a video that originated on WhatsApp, a doctor identified by UK newspaper The Times as Dr. Sarfaraz Munshi reveals a breathing technique that’s used on intensive care patients to help them fight off infection. 

According to Dr. Munshi, who practices at Queen’s Hospital in Romford, England, the technique might be beneficial to people who are self-isolating with coronavirus symptoms, as well as people who aren’t yet displaying any symptoms. “While you have an active infection you need to be getting a good amount of air into the bases of your lungs,” Dr. Sarfaraz says in the video. “The only way you are going to do that is by having a technique.”

The technique he suggests involves taking in five deep breaths, then holding each one for five seconds. You then take a sixth breath and immediately cough forcefully while covering your mouth.

Dr. Sarfaraz recommends doing this twice, then lying on your front with a pillow to support you, taking slightly deeper breaths than normal for 10 minutes. This is important, he says, because the majority of your lung is on your back, not on your front. “By lying on your back you’re closing off more of the smaller airways, and this is not good during a period of infection. [It will] increase your risk of secondary pneumonia, that can make your condition deteriorate much further—bearing in mind the patients that are deteriorating are deteriorating because of respiratory problems.” 

Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling shared the video on her Twitter page, revealing that she had used the technique and it helped ease what she describes as COVID-19 symptoms and led to her recovery. 

“‘Please watch this doc from Queens Hospital explain how to relieve respiratory symptoms,” she wrote on April 6. “For last 2 weeks I’ve had all symptoms of C19 (tho haven’t been tested) & did this on doc husband’s advice. I’m fully recovered & technique helped a lot (sic).” 

CNN news anchor Chris Cuomo, who has coronavirus and is broadcasting from his home in isolation, also touted the breathing technique as a way to fight the virus.

While it's always helpful to know what individuals fighting the illness say led to their recovery, does the breathing technique really help ease or get rid of COVID-19 symptoms—and what do other doctors think of it?

Ray Casciari, MD, a pulmonologist with St. Joseph Hospital in Orange County, California, agrees that it works. “It will improve ventilation and secretion removal,” he tells Health, adding that various forms of controlled coughing techniques have been used successfully for years with all respiratory diseases, and that they work with all types of pneumonia. 

But not all doctors agree that people with symptoms of COVID-19 (or those who may be infected but asymptomatic) should be using this technique. 

“Respiratory techniques do not change the course of the disease,” Jorge Mercado, MD, associate chief of the pulmonary and critical care section at NYU Langone Hospital–Brooklyn, tells Health. “It’s difficult to determine whether symptoms are improved as breathing is unconscious (i.e. we do not think about it), so every time you purposefully breath in a certain way or pattern, you will feel different.” 

In Dr. Mercado’s opinion, controlled coughing is dangerous. “It comes to mind the efforts in Victorian England by the ladies of high society who held their breath and cough, which we know now worsened their underlying tuberculosis,” he says. “I would certainly not recommend this technique, as it is potentially dangerous and makes you cough more forcefully.”

“I’m concerned that people think this is the way to cure COVID-19 because they may not use well-documented therapies when they become available,” Dr. Mercado adds. “They may also fail to seek medical help when required.”

But the greatest danger of controlled coughing during the COVID-19 era is spreading the virus to people close by, warns Dr. Casciari. “You have to be careful to shield your cough so you don't spray droplets into the room,” he says.

Without any clinical trials or other scientific evidence that controlled coughing could help people manage their coronavirus symptoms, the best advice is to consult your own doctor before trying any techniques that aren’t recommended by the CDC. 

Rather than forcing yourself to cough, covering your natural cough by coughing into your elbow or a surgical mask is the best way to decrease rates of transmission, Dr. Mercado says, echoing the advice from the CDC.

The information in this story is accurate as of press time. However, as the situation surrounding COVID-19 continues to evolve, it's possible that some data have changed since publication. While Health is trying to keep our stories as up-to-date as possible, we also encourage readers to stay informed on news and recommendations for their own communities by using the CDCWHO, and their local public health department as resources.

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