Breathlessness and coughing

Coronavirus (COVID-19) recovery

Breathlessness is when you are short of breath or have difficulty breathing. This can be hard to manage. It can be a common symptom when you recover from coronavirus (COVID-19). 

You might still have a cough. This can lead to irritation and inflammation, which could make your cough worse.

There are exercises to help manage breathlessness and coughing. 

If you feel that your breathing is getting worse or you have new breathlessness after COVID-19, it's important to get medical advice.

    Pursed-lips breathing

    Some people find that breathing in through the nose and out through narrowed lips helps with breathlessness. People who find this helpful often do it without realising.

    Pursed-lips breathing helps to keep your airways open. This allows the air to leave your lungs more easily. It creates more room for your next breath in.

    This technique is helpful for people who have breathlessness with conditions like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) or emphysema (lung conditions that cause breathing problems).

    You can also use it when you have the urge to cough.

    Managing breathlessness

    • Avoid holding your breath during activities, such as climbing stairs or bending. 
    • Try to ‘blow as you go’. This means breathing out when you do something that involves an effort.  Examples are bending, lifting, reaching or standing up from a chair.
    • Avoid rushing.
    • Match the rhythm of your breathing to your steps. For example, take a breath in and out on each step when you climb the stairs.
    • Sometimes, it can help to point a fan towards your mouth and nose. This can reduce feelings of breathlessness.

    Positions to help breathlessness

    There are positions that can help to ease breathlessness at rest and after activity.

    These positions place your arms so that the breathing accessory muscles are in a better position to help with breathing. Leaning forward might also improve the movement of your diaphragm. This is the main muscle that you use when you breathe.

    • Position 1. Lie down on a bed and make sure that you are fully over on your side. Rest your upper arm on a pillow if this helps.
    • Position 2. Sit on a chair with a table in front of you. Put pillows or cushions onto the table, stacked to a comfortable height for you. Relax your head down onto the pillows as much as possible. It might help to keep your legs apart.

    You can try different positions and change them until you find what works best for you. Only do the positions that feel comfortable for you. 

    Positions after you've been active

    There are positions that might help with breathlessness after you have been active.

    With all the positions, try to relax your hands, wrists, shoulders, neck and jaw as much as possible. Only do the positions that feel comfortable for you. 

    • Position 1. Sit on a chair with your legs apart. Lean forward, resting the lower part of your arms on your thighs.
    • Position 2. Keeping a straight back, lean your back against a wall. Keep your feet shoulder-width apart and a short distance from the wall, with your knees slightly bent.
    • Position 3. Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Put your hands on your hips. 
    • Position 4. Sit on a chair with a table in front of you. Keep your legs apart and rest the lower part of your arms down onto the table. 

    You can experiment with your arm position. Does your breathing feel easier with your hands behind your head or back?

    Managing a cough

    Try to breathe in deep into your stomach. If you put your hand on your stomach, you should see your hand rise and fall as you breathe. It is a good idea to practise this regularly.

    If your breathing becomes shallow and rapid, use this technique to bring your breath back to your stomach. This is important because rapid breathing can make your cough worse.

    Try to work out if there is anything that causes your cough or makes it worse, and avoid this where possible. Examples are:

    • spicy foods
    • air conditioning
    • smoky environments
    • dust
    • talking a lot on the phone

    It is important to stay hydrated and regularly sip water or other drinks that do not contain caffeine.

    The urge to cough

    When you first notice the urge to cough, try these techniques.

    • Sip water.
    • Suck boiled sweets (but not menthol sweets).
    • Close your mouth and swallow.
    • Breathe in and out through your nose.
    • Try pursed-lips breathing.


    • Try to stay calm and continue your usual physical, work and social activities and routines.
    • If you focus on something you enjoy, this can distract you from the need to cough. 
    • Most people will be concerned about you rather than find your cough troublesome.

    Resource number: 5122/VER1
    Last reviewed: January 2021
    Next review date: December 2023

    Contact us

    If you have any questions or concerns about your coronavirus (COVID-19) recovery, please speak to a doctor or nurse caring for you. Your discharge letter (the letter that you get when you leave hospital) should have their contact details.

    Phone: 020 7188 5082 or 020 7188 5089

    Occupational therapy department 
    St Thomas' Hospital, phone: 020 7188 4180
    Guy's Hospital, phone: 020 7188 4185

    Nutrition and dietetics department 
    Phone: 020 7188 4128

    Speech and language therapy department 
    St Thomas' Hospital, phone: 020 7188 6246 
    Guy's Hospital, phone: 020 7188 6233

    Do you have any comments or concerns about your care?

    Contact our Patient Advice and Liaison Service (PALS)

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