You thought you’d be able to breathe easy now that you’ve recovered from COVID-19, but maybe walking upstairs or going grocery shopping leaves you breathless. And there’s that tickle in your throat that will likely turn into a coughing fit at any moment. When will your lungs be back to normal?
After recovering from COVID-19, many people have symptoms that stick around. The most common long-haul COVID symptoms include lung problems like shortness of breath and a cough that doesn’t go away.
Below, we highlight common lung symptoms after COVID-19, ways to breathe easier and when to get help.
How long does it take lungs to heal after COVID-19?
If you’re having coughing fits or breathing issues after COVID-19, it’s natural that you’d want to know how soon your lungs will get better. The truth is that everybody’s experience with COVID-19 is a little different. Your healing time will likely depend on what COVID-19 was like for you.
For most people, it takes between 3 and 18 months for the lungs to get back to their pre-COVID condition. Just like it takes your body time to heal from a broken arm, your body needs time to repair damage to the lung tissue.
But a person’s symptoms may not always match their level of COVID-19 lung damage. So if you’re struggling with lung issues, it’s a good idea to make an appointment with your primary care doctor.
Are COVID-19 lung problems reversible?
In most cases, lung problems from COVID-19 are reversible. Three things that impact how well (and how quickly) your lungs will heal are:
1. COVID-19 severity
If you had a mild case of COVID-19 – with symptoms like a dry cough, sore throat and sometimes a mild case of pneumonia – you probably won’t have lasting damage.
You’ll want to be on the lookout for lingering COVID-19 lung symptoms, if you had a severe case with one or more of the following:
- Use of a respirator to breathe
- Pneumonia with complications
- Pulmonary embolism
- Lung scarring
2. When you got treatment
If you got help for your symptoms while they were still moderate or mild, or received medicine to prevent severe COVID-19, you’re less likely to experience lung problems after you’ve recovered from the coronavirus.
3. Your overall health
If you have a weakened immune system or medical conditions like asthma or diabetes, it may take longer for you to recover from long COVID. Having lung issues before you got COVID-19 can also affect the how long it takes for your lungs to heal.
Tips for managing your post COVID-19 cough and breathing issues
If you’re experiencing lung problems after COVID-19, there are things you can do to help them heal. Here are at-home treatments for common long-COVID lung symptoms:
Lingering cough after COVID-19
A COVID-19 cough can be frustrating because when you start, it can be hard to stop. Here’s why this happens: Coughing can cause irritation and inflammation, which increases your need to cough, leading to a coughing fit. Plus, when you cough, you’re likely to breathe through your mouth. If you take big gulps of air, this can make the coughing worse because your lungs aren’t able to handle such a large amount of fast-flowing air.
How to clear your lungs of phlegm
If you’re coughing up phlegm, it’s a good thing. It means your body is working hard to get rid of the secretions in your lungs so you can get better. If your chest feels congested, try this method for getting rid of phlegm:
- Take a slow, deep breath through your nose. Count to three while holding your breath and then release through your mouth. Repeat three or four times.
- Breathe normally for 20-30 seconds.
- Do steps 1-2, three more times.
- With your mouth open, push out a few short, strong breaths without breathing in. This would be the type of breath you might use if you were trying to fog up a window.
- Repeat steps 1-4 until you feel less congested. If you’re gasping for air or getting dizzy, stop and try again later.
- Repeat this process throughout the day as necessary to get rid of phlegm.
In addition to deep breathing, other things that can help clear your lungs include steam inhalation and getting exercise.
What to do if you feel like coughing
When you start to feel a cough rising inside you, try one of the following to keep it under control:
- Close your mouth and swallow.
- Breathe through your nose until you no longer need to cough.
- Suck on a hard candy or a throat lozenge.
- Take a sip of a warm or icy cold beverage to soothe your throat.
Trouble breathing after COVID-19
Shortness of breath after COVID-19 is another common symptom. You might find breathing difficult when using the stairs or going for a walk. You may also feel tightness in your chest.
Pay attention to how you feel. If the tightness in your chest comes with the warning signs of a heart attack – such as chest pain, dizziness or lightheadedness – call 911 right away.
How to improve breathing after COVID-19
Getting regular aerobic exercise helps your body, including your lungs, work better. Your goal should be 30 minutes of exercise most days but that might not be realistic right away. So, don’t push yourself too hard and take regular rests if needed.
There are also specific breathing exercises that can help, including:
- Pursed lip breathing. Breathe in through your nose, then pucker your lips as if you’re going to whistle and breathe out.
- Humming while breathing. Breathe in deeply. Then, when breathing out, hum or make the “om” sound that’s often used in meditation and yoga.
If you’re not sure what’s safe for you, talk to your doctor. They can provide suggestions for exercises and tips for regaining your strength after COVID-19.
Breathe easier after COVID-19
If it’s been more than a couple weeks since you got over COVID-19 and it feels like your lungs aren’t getting any better, make an appointment with your primary care doctor. They’ll be able to assess your symptoms and develop a personal treatment plan that may include breathing exercises, antibiotics or steroids.
If your doctor needs more information about the health of your lungs, they may recommend a pulmonary function test – a breathing test that measures how much air your lungs hold and how well they are working.
Your doctor may also refer you for pulmonary rehabilitation for additional care from specialists. The goal of pulmonary rehabilitation is to help you learn the best ways to overcome or manage lung problems after COVID-19. The doctors will work with you on your breathing challenges and help you make changes to improve your quality of life.
If you find that you have other long-haul symptoms – like COVID-19 brain fog, fatigue or loss of taste and smell after COVID-19 – talk to your doctor about those problems, too. There are treatments that can help.