Is shortness of breath a symptom of COVID-19?

April 1, 2021

Data from millions of ZOE COVID Symptom Study app contributors has shown that shortness of breath can be a symptom of COVID-19. Here’s how to spot it and what it feels like.

What is shortness of breath like in COVID-19?

COVID-related shortness of breath makes you feel like you need to catch your breath when doing simple tasks such as getting up, walking to a different room or using the bathroom.

You should also look out for having to take extra breaths mid-sentence, or feeling breathless during a normal conversation. 

People with shortness of breath can become hypoxic (not getting enough oxygen) without knowing it, because they don’t necessarily feel out of breath when at rest. 

If you find yourself feeling short of breath you can buy or ask your GP for a pulse oximeter to measure and monitor your blood oxygen levels

When does shortness of breath happen in COVID-19?

Shortness of breath usually occurs a week after initial infection. It’s associated with having a more serious case of COVID-19 and needing hospital support. For those who go to hospital, their shortness of breath tends to get worse before improving. 

The older you are, the longer you might experience shortness of breath and the longer it takes for you to get over it. 

For those who get it, children have shortness of breath for an average of two days but it can last up to five. 

Adults aged 16-35 have shortness of breath for three days on average but it can last up to eight, while people over 35 years old tend to have shortness of breath for five days but can take 12-13 days for the symptom to clear. It’s also a symptom experienced by people with long COVID.

How common is shortness of breath in COVID-19?

Feeling short of breath isn’t a common symptom of COVID-19. It’s slightly more common in 18-65 years olds, with 7 in 20 reporting a shortness of breath compared to roughly 2 in 20 for children and roughly 5 in 20 over-65s. 

People experiencing shortness of breath tend to have multiple other COVID-19 symptoms, be older and frailer, and more likely to be overweight and have pre-existing conditions such as diabetes or lung disease. 

Only 2% of people who were ill with COVID-19 reported a shortness of breath as their only symptom. 

What other symptoms of COVID-19 are common alongside shortness of breath?

If you have shortness of breath associated with COVID-19, it’s very likely you’ll also experience five to seven other symptoms alongside it. These other symptoms can include fatigue, headache, loss of smell (anosmia), persistent cough, unusual muscle pains and chest pains.   

It’s important to be aware that when clustered with a lot of other symptoms, particularly diarrhoea and abdominal pains, shortness of breath was associated with a higher risk of needing hospital support, especially in older people or those needing support usually.

Depending on your age and sex, you should contact your doctor if you have multiple different symptoms of COVID-19 in the first week of being ill.

What should I do if I have shortness of breath and think it might be COVID-19?

You should get urgent medical help if you have breathing problems, are suddenly confused, or your lips or face are turning blue. If you are experiencing shortness of breath when doing small tasks, buy or ask your GP for a pulse oximeter to monitor your blood oxygen levels at home

If you have shortness of breath alongside other symptoms of COVID-19, especially abdominal pains and diarrhoea, you should:

Having an underlying lung condition can increase the risk from COVID-19. You can find advice for people with asthma on our blog, and the British Lung Foundation has lots of helpful information about lung conditions and COVID-19.

Stay safe and keep logging.

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