Yes, it can be a sign of COVID-19...but it's also a symptom of anxiety.

By Leah Groth
Updated March 24, 2020

Dry cough, fever, fatigue—by now, most have heard about the commonest symptoms of COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2). For the most part, those symptoms are pretty self-explanatory. But another common symptom—shortness of breath—has been raising a lot of questions, including what the sensation feels like, and when it might warrant a call to your doctor (or a trip to the emergency room).

Essentially, shortness of breath—aka, dyspnea or breathlessness—is "a group of subjective sensations that suggest our respiratory system is not functioning well," Subinoy Das, MD, chief medical officer of Tivic Health Inc tells Health. Those sensations usually feel like an increased work or effort to breathe, chest tightness, and air hunger or "the feeling of not getting enough oxygen." he says. 

Shortness of breath can be caused by a number of things, according to the American Lung Association (ALA)—the least severe of which include strenuous exercise, extreme temperatures, or high altitude. Even anxiety—which many of us are feeling right now—can sometimes lead to a sensation of breathlessness. Sometimes, however, shortness of breath can signal more serious illnesses like asthma, heart disease, or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). And in some cases, when shortness of breath comes on quickly, it can signal emergency situations like carbon monoxide poisoning, pneumonia, or a heart attack, per the ALA.

When it comes to COVID-19, shortness of breath is thought to be due to the development of pneumonia, an inflammation of the lungs linked to a coronavirus infection, says Dr. Das. In that case, the shortness of breath occurs when oxygen in the lungs doesn't make its way to the blood as a result of the viral attack, he adds. The American College of Chest Physicians echoes this, saying that when blood carbon dioxide levels rise, a person's breathing rate can increase, which can lead to the sensation of difficulty breathing. Too much acid in the blood from an infection can also lead to the feeling of breathlessness, per the ACCP.

For some diagnosed with COVID-19, shortness of breath is a more severe symptom, and can be treated in a hospital setting with supplemental oxygen, says Dr. Das. The extra oxygen helps increase the amount of oxygen in a patient's blood. "In rare cases, pressurized oxygen through a mechanical ventilator is needed to force the oxygen through severely inflamed lungs into the blood stream," adds Dr. Das.

Overall, if you're worried you're experiencing shortness of breath possibly related to COVID-19, the first thing to do is try to calm down (easier said than done)—that's because, again, shortness of breath is a common symptom of anxiety. In that moment, take stock of how your body is feeling and looking overall: anxiety can also make your heart race, palms sweat, and pupils dilate.

If you're still concerned about a possible coronavirus infection after that—and you have other symptoms common with coronavirus, like dry cough, fever, and fatigue—give your doctor a call; they can then help you determine whether you qualify for a COVID-19 test. However, if your shortness of breath is severe, and accompanied by other symptoms like chest pain, lightheadedness, and lips turning blue, it's best to seek medical attention ASAP.

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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