Is Shortness of Breath a Symptom of COVID-19? What to Know

Medically Reviewed By Darragh O'Carroll, MD

Dyspnea, the medical term for shortness of breath, is a symptom of COVID-19. Shortness of breath with COVID-19 can happen suddenly, even when you’re at rest, and it may linger as a symptom of long COVID. COVID-19 can affect several organs in your body. However, the American Lung Association reports that the lungs are the first organ the virus affects. While many other conditions can cause dyspnea, shortness of breath could be an early warning sign of COVID-19.

This article discusses the relationship between COVID-19 and shortness of breath. It also looks at other COVID-19 symptoms, possible complications, when to contact a doctor, and more.

What does shortness of breath from COVID-19 feel like?

A person is leaning over and struggling to breathe.
Photography by BONNINSTUDIO/Stocksy United

Shortness of breath with COVID-19 can feel like you are having trouble breathing. You may feel like you are unable to fully take in air, as if you are out of breath from strenuous exercise — though it can happen even when you are resting.

You may experience other respiratory symptoms alongside shortness of breath with COVID-19, such as:

Learn more about shortness of breath.

How long does shortness of breath from COVID-19 last?

Shortness of breath from COVID-19 may last for only a few days.

However, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source reports that difficulty breathing or shortness of breath can linger for weeks, months, or years.

Symptoms that persist after the virus has cleared up are collectively known as “post-COVID” or “long COVID.”

Learn more about the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Why can COVID-19 cause shortness of breath?

Doctors and researchers are still working to determine exactly how COVID-19 causes shortness of breath. Research published in 2021 Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source indicates that there are three ways that COVID-19 could cause breathlessness: 

  • by causing inflammation in your lung tissue
  • by causing thrombosis, which is a blood clot in a lung artery that blocks blood flow
  • by invading the neuronal pathways in your body and disrupting the signals between your brain and lungs

How common is shortness of breath from COVID-19?

In a study by the CDC Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source from 2020, 43% of symptomatic adults with COVID-19 experienced shortness of breath, and only 13% of symptomatic children experienced it. 

However, dyspnea is ​​also a common symptom Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source in the general population. Many other health conditions — like asthma, pneumonia, and heart failure — can also cause shortness of breath.

Experiencing this isolated symptom is unlikely to be a sign of COVID-19. 

Can I experience shortness of breath after getting the COVID-19 vaccine or booster?

Even if you’ve been vaccinated, you can experience shortness of breath as a symptom of COVID-19.

In rare circumstances Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source , COVID-19 vaccination can cause myocarditis or pericarditis. Myocarditis is the inflammation of the heart muscle, and pericarditis is the inflammation of the outer lining of your heart. 

Shortness of breath can be a symptom of myocarditis and pericarditis. In rare cases, it may occur within a few weeks of the second vaccine dose.

What other COVID-19 symptoms can occur alongside shortness of breath?

Along with shortness of breath, other symptoms of COVID-19 include:

Symptoms typically begin 2–14 days Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source after exposure to the virus that causes COVID-19, called SARS-CoV-2. Some people will experience mild symptoms, whereas others will have more severe symptoms.

Learn more about COVID-19 symptoms.

What are the treatments for shortness of breath with COVID-19?

If you receive treatment for shortness of breath with COVID-19, your doctor may recommend antiviral medication. The FDA has approved Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source antivirals for people with mild to moderate symptoms of COVID-19 who are more likely to get very sick.

In most cases, you can manage symptoms of COVID-19 at home. The CDC Trusted Source Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) Governmental authority Go to source recommends over-the-counter medications such as ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin) and acetaminophen (Tylenol).

To help you to manage shortness of breath with long-COVID, your doctor may recommend breathing exercises, such as breathing control and pursed lip breathing. Your doctor will be able to help you learn breathing techniques to make breathing easier both when you are resting and during physical activity.

Learn more about breathing exercises for the long-term effects of COVID-19.

Are there any complications of shortness of breath from COVID-19?

If you don’t receive treatment for dyspnea, it can lead to Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source

  • acute respiratory failure, which is when your lungs can’t deliver enough oxygen into your blood 
  • hypoxia, which refers to low levels of oxygen in your body tissues 
  • hypercapnia, which is the buildup of carbon dioxide in your body
  • cardiac arrest, which is when your heart stops functioning, you stop breathing, and you lose consciousness  

Contacting your doctor as soon as you have concerns about shortness of breath and following your treatment plan can help you reduce the risk of complications.

When should I see a doctor?

If you have COVID-19 and are experiencing severe or worsening shortness of breath, you should contact your doctor. You may require Trusted Source PubMed Central Highly respected database from the National Institutes of Health Go to source supplemental oxygen therapy to prevent damage to your body’s tissues and organs. 

Find out what to do if you test positive for COVID-19.

How do doctors diagnose the cause of shortness of breath?

If you are experiencing shortness of breath but are testing negative for COVID-19, your doctor may perform other diagnostic measures to rule out other causes.

After completing a thorough physical examination, your doctor may order the following tests

Summary

Shortness of breath (dyspnea) is a common symptom of COVID-19. However, experiencing this symptom on its own without other symptoms is usually not indicative of COVID-19.

Dyspnea is also a potential but rare side effect of COVID-19 vaccination.

Shortness of breath with COVID-19 can last for a few days or potentially linger for years with long COVID. Contact your doctor if shortness of breath persists after COVID-19. They can advise on treatments to help you to manage your symptoms and reduce your risk of complications.

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Medical Reviewer: Darragh O'Carroll, MD
Last Review Date: 2023 Mar 3
View All Lungs, Breathing and Respiration Articles
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