Shortness of Breath: Understanding This Vital COVID-19 Symptom

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April 20, 2020


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While the majority of people infected with the coronavirus (COVID-19) — about 80 percent — suffer mainly mild symptoms, others require medical attention. And most of those needing emergency care may present with a key symptom of COVID-19 — shortness of breath.

Many people with asthma, heart disease, chronic lung disease and those who smoke may suffer from occasional shortness of breath, like when climbing stairs or going for long walks. But COVID-19 patients with shortness of breath will usually feel a greater severity of gasping or straining for more air, explains Javier Pérez-Fernández, M.D., pulmonologist and critical care director at Baptist Hospital of Miami.

Up to 20 percent of people who get COVID-19 become seriously ill with pneumonia-like symptoms. Adults older than 60 who have underlying medical problems, like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes or lung issues, are the most likely to get seriously ill from the virus.

“People with chronic lung disease and chronic heart problems might actually have shortness of breath frequently as a baseline, so it’s very difficult for them to identify if this is different than what it is normal,” explains Dr. Perez-Fernandez. “And that’s why those are the people that they might need some medical attention and need to contact their healthcare professional.”

The most severe cases of COVID-19 involve conditions similar to pneumonia, which is an infection that inflames the air sacs in one or both lungs. The more serious cases involve trouble breathing.

But for those otherwise healthy individuals, what exactly qualifies as “shortness of breath”?

“If you’re going up the stairs for a few floors and you feel lack of air, now that might not be shortness of breath,” explains Dr. Perez-Fernandez. “It just might be that you’re out of shape. But if you go from your living room to your kitchen to get a glass of water, and then suddenly you experience shortness of breath which you may not have had before, then this is a big indicator that you may need medical attention.”

One life-threatening complication that can arise from the coronavirus is “acute respiratory distress syndrome,” commonly referred to as ARDS. New research from the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) suggests that more than 40 percent of individuals in the study hospitalized for severe and critical COVID-19 developed ARDS.

The American Lung Association (ALA) states athat ARDS is a rapidly progressive disease that can occur in critically ill patients, including those diagnosed with severe illness resulting from COVID-19. ARDS can be initially diagnosed as pneumonia or pulmonary edema (excess fluid in the lungs caused by heart problems). Symptoms of ARDS include severe shortness of breath, cough, and fever. Fast heart rate and rapid breathing can also develop in ARDS patients — and chest pain, particularly during inhaling.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) explains that “if you develop emergency warning signs for COVID-19 get medical attention immediately. These warning signs include: trouble breathing; persistent pain or pressure in the chest; new confusion or inability to arouse; and bluish lips or face.

High-Risk Individuals

Older adults and people who have severe underlying chronic medical conditions, such as heart or lung disease or diabetes, are at a higher risk for developing more serious complications from COVID-19 illness.

People at higher risk for serious illness from COVID-19 should contact their healthcare provider early, even if their illness is mild. Here’s more information on COVID-19 from Baptist Health.

Concerned you may have coronavirus?
Use our online Coronavirus Assessment tool or call our COVID-19 hotline, 1-833-MYBAPTIST (833-692-2784). To see a doctor on your phone from the comfort and safety of your home, download Baptist Health Care On Demand.

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