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, explains. 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, light-headedness, and lips turning blue, it’s best to seek medical attention ASAP.
What is a dry cough?
You’ve heard the typical symptoms by now: fever, shortness of breath, dry cough—about 80 per cent of those with COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2), only get those mild signs, according to research. And while one of those symptoms—a cough—may sound pretty easy to diagnose, many are questioning what exactly a dry cough is, and how it’s different from other coughs.
Basically, a dry cough is “one where no mucus or phlegm is produced with the cough,” Subinoy Das, MD, an Ohio-based ear, nose and throat physician, and medical director for the US Institute for Advanced Sinus Care & Research, explains. Conversely, a wet cough “is one filled with mucus or phlegm where someone can actually feel the mucus move in their bronchi or throat,” he says, adding that “mucus expectorates or leaves the chest with each [wet] cough.”
A dry cough may also sound different than a wet cough. “It has a very consistent sound,” says Dr Das—often triggered by a tickle in the back of your throat, with a barking or hoarse sound. That’s because “the airway is not constantly changing with the cough,” says Dr Das. (With a wet cough, mucus builds up, then leaves, constantly changing the airways.) He explains that, while dry coughs don’t necessarily hurt, they are “unsatisfying coughs, because no mucus or phlegm is expelled past the vocal cords.” Still, the coughing can get so hard that the person can possibly injure their ribs or intercostal muscles (the muscles that run between the ribs).
Could be other causes
It’s important to remember, however, that dry coughs can be a symptom of a variety of other illnesses—not just COVID-19—including, allergies, asthma, bronchitis, or a typical common cold, according to the American College of Allergy, Asthma, and Immunology. However, Dr. Das explains that if you have any other symptoms related to COVID-19, like a fever, unexplained loss of taste or smell, or gastrointestinal issues like diarrhoea, you should call your doctor to inquire about getting tested for coronavirus.
While the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention suggests cough medicine, humidifiers, and cough drops to ease the discomfort of a flu-related dry cough, Dr. Das points out that currently, there are no medically proven ways to reduce a dry cough from COVID-19, but those with symptoms can use the above remedies to help relieve them, as well. Dr. Das also recommends taking steamy showers, “which helps thin the mucus building up in the nose or nasopharynx that could possibly be worsening a patient’s cough.” And if you do test positive for coronavirus, or if you believe you have it, it’s necessary to self-isolate so you don’t make those around you ill, as well.