Coronavirus symptoms: How to tell your shortness of breath is serious

COVID-19 graphs are enough to make even the most sanguine dispirited. Across Europe, the worst-hit regions show a steep curve which represents a sharp rise in cases and fatalities. The UK is now falling in line with this trend and is expected to see a dramatic spike over the next week or two.


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Large swathes of the general public are bound to be worried they are displaying signs they are infected with the virus.

This is owing in part to the rapid rise in cases engendering a sense of paranoia and the fact reported symptoms are easily attributable to a number of conditions.

Shortness of breath, a symptom highlighted by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), speaks to this uncertainty.

According to Mayo Clinic, shortness of breath — known medically as dyspnea — is often described as an intense tightening in the chest, air hunger, difficulty breathing, breathlessness or a feeling of suffocation.

“Few sensations are as frightening as not being able to get enough air,” explains the health site.

The symptom can be attributed to a range of lifestyle factors, such as exercise intensity, extreme temperatures, obesity and higher altitude.

But when it is a sign of COVID-19? According to Harvard Health, there are no distinctive signs but there are general signs your shortness of breath is serious.

As the health body notes, if you find you are ever breathing harder or having trouble getting air each time you exert yourself, you always need to call your doctor.

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“That was true before we had the recent outbreak of COVID-19, and it will still be true after it is over,” says the health body.

It adds: “Meanwhile, it’s important to remember that if shortness of breath is your only symptom, without a cough or fever, something other than COVID-19 is the likely problem.”

The NHS singles out a cough and fever as the main warning signs of COVID-19.

According to the health site, a high temperature means you feel hot to touch on your chest or back (you do not need to measure your temperature).


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A new, continuous cough may be a warning sign if you are coughing a lot for more than an hour, or three or more coughing episodes in 24 hours (if you usually have a cough, it may be worse than usual).

What should I do if I notice these symptoms?

UK health bodies say you must not leave your home if you have symptoms of coronavirus (COVID-19) or live with someone who does.

“To protect others, do not go to places like a GP surgery, pharmacy or hospital. Stay at home,” advises the NHS.

This social distancing measure is called self-isolation.

If you are self-isolating, you must:

  • Not leave your home for any reason, other than to exercise once a day – but stay at least two metres (three steps) away from other people
  • Not go out to buy food or collect medicine – order them by phone or online, or ask someone else to drop them off at your home
  • Not have visitors, such as friends and family, in your home

“You can use your garden if you have one,” adds the NHS.

How long should I self-isolate for?

If you have symptoms of coronavirus, you’ll need to self-isolate for seven days, according to the UK government.

After seven days:

  • If you do not have a high temperature, you do not need to self-isolate
  • If you still have a high temperature, keep self-isolating until your temperature returns to normal

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