When you're short of breath

COVID-19: What to Know When You’re Normally Short of Breath

One of the symptoms of COVID-19 is shortness of breath—and that sign can be an anxious one when you’re someone who experiences it on a semi-regular basis.

In the nearly two months that we have been at home, I’ve talked to my doctors twice about this. Here’s what I’ve learned.

The first time I was interviewing my cardiologist for a series of articles about managing various diseases in the time of coronavirus. After our discussion she asked how I was.

“I’m worried about some shortness of breath,” I said. Then I explained I was training for my first half marathon since my first lung pleurisy attack (5 years ago) and I was on track to complete it without incident. But then lockdown happened and after some stressful homeschooling days, I was feeling a bit short of breath. At that time, I didn’t think it was COVID related as it had a familiar pattern.

Research for the aforementioned articles, specifically about COPD (or coronary obstructive pulmonary disease), lead me to this nugget: Know your exacerbations. I don’t have COPD but I figured that principle could apply to my situation too. What’s more: The COPD Foundation reminds patients that exacerbations don’t usually involve fever. Coronavirus comes with fever.

Then, my doctor told me something to help me fight my anxiety-induced shortness of breath. If my workout wasn’t affected by the shortness of breath, then I shouldn’t worry that it is COVID-related.

These two insights gave me piece of mind as the shortness of breath came and went like a bothersome gnat.

Then, it returned. This time it was persistent and it affected my workouts. I emailed my primary care doc: Should I worry?

That day I had my first telehealth appointment—to discuss my inability to breathe easily. After a few questions about my symptoms—difficulty catching my breath while exercising and talking as well as pain in my torso when inhaling, she told me to pay attention to my symptoms and their severity for the next 5 days. (Tests were not available to me.) At that time I had been experiencing symptoms for 5 days and she said that the coronavirus pneumonia developed between days 10 and 14.

My shortness of breath didn’t get worse. But the uncertainty of it all made me decide to get a pulse oximeter.

If you don’t know what a pulse oximeter is, it’s an electric device that clips on to the end of your finger to measure the amount of oxygen that is in your blood. Oxygen saturation can be measured by shining a light through your fingertip and making it appear red. The oximeter then analyzes the amount of light that passes through the finger to determine the amount of oxygen in the red blood cells.

I didn’t want to keep bothering my doctor with my random bouts of pleurisy. So I bought myself this an easy way to decide when to call my physician, as well as some piece of mind for about $40.

My oxygen saturation have been registering in the 90 percentiles, which is normal. If these levels start to decline then I can call my doctor with my concerns, symptoms, and now, data. This simple practice could lessen the severity of the COVID-19 pneumonia, especially for someone like me with preexisting conditions that could make it worse.

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