Is This Coronavirus Breathing Technique Legit?
Considering it's still unknown when a vaccine for the coronavirus might be available, it's understandable if you're intrigued by treatments claiming to help with a COVID-19 infection. For instance, a video of a UK doctor sharing a breathing technique has gone viral after he said the method could help treat the novel coronavirus.
In the video, Sarfaraz Munshi, an urgent care physician at Queen's Hospital in London, walks viewers through the breathing technique and why he recommends it.
"What I need you to understand is, once you have an active infection, you need to be getting a good amount of air into the bases of your lung," he explains in the video, suggesting you practice the breathing technique "right from the beginning" of a COVID-19 infection. "If you want to do it before you even pick up the infection, good idea," he adds. (BTW: Munshi didn't develop the technique. In the video, he credits Sue Elliott, director of nursing at the Partnership of East London Cooperatives, for teaching him the breathing technique.)
Here's how you do it, according to Munshi:
- Take five deep breaths in through the mouth, holding each breath for five seconds before exhaling through the mouth.
- Take a sixth deep breath, and then do a big cough (making sure to cover your mouth—because, coronavirus).
- Repeat two times.
After that, lie on your stomach in bed and take "slightly deeper" breaths for 10 minutes, explains Munshi in the video. "The majority of your lung is on your back, not on your front," he says. "So, by lying on your back, you're closing off more of the smaller airways, and this is not good during the period of infection." (Related: 3 Breathwork Techniques That Can Improve Your Health)
Munshi's video hasn't just made the rounds on social media. Celebrities are also sharing that they've practiced the same method or similar breathing techniques during their bouts with the coronavirus.
J.K. Rowling says she practiced the technique "on [her] doc husband's advice" after having COVID-19 respiratory symptoms, sharing that it "helped a lot."
CNN anchor Chris Cuomo says he practices the breathing technique five times a day.
But, of course, just because celebrities say something works doesn't mean it ~actually~ works. So, is this coronavirus breathing technique for real?
Can this breathing technique actually help with a COVID-19 infection?
First, an important caveat: This breathing technique isn't a cure-all for a COVID-19 infection, let alone complications of the virus, such as pneumonia. "Unfortunately, there really is no way to definitively prevent [complications such as] pneumonia if a patient contracts COVID-19," says Jonathan Parsons, M.D., a pulmonologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
Still, this breathing technique "has the potential to be helpful," says Dr. Parsons. When someone develops a respiratory infection like pneumonia, their alveoli—tiny air sacs in the lungs that take in oxygen—can fill with fluid or pus, making it difficult for the air you breathe to get into your bloodstream, according to the American Lung Association.
"Taking repetitive deep breaths associated with breath-holding may help ventilate the lungs and potentially improve secretion removal, which could reduce the risk of [coronavirus complications like] pneumonia," explains Dr. Parsons. (Related: Can the Coronavirus Cause Diarrhea?)
"This is not a hoax," says Raymond Casciari, M.D., a pulmonologist at St. Joseph Hospital in Orange, California, of the breathing technique. "A deep breathing exercise like this can help with secretion removal and help to open airways to get air deeper into the alveoli."
Wondering what's up with the part where you lie down on your stomach after all that deep breathing? It's called postural drainage, and it allows gravity to help pull loose secretions out of the organs, including the lungs, explains Dr. Casciari. In fact, many doctors treating patients who are hospitalized with the coronavirus—particularly those who are on ventilators—are placing these patients on their stomachs, according to CNN.
FYI: This type of breathing technique isn't new.
"These kinds of breathing exercises have been used for years," says Dr. Casciari. Breathing techniques that recommend breathing deeply several times and then coughing, huffing, or using a spirometer (a tool that measures the volume and movement of air into and out of the lungs) on the exhale have "long been used" in patients with serious forms of the flu to help prevent and treat secondary bacterial pneumonia infections, says William Schaffner, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, and professor at the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine.
That said, there isn't a ton of research on the link between deep breathing techniques and pneumonia. But there is some: In a study published in the journal Medicine, researchers followed 240 elderly patients as they recovered from a hip fracture, an injury that can sometimes be followed by pneumonia (if a hip fracture keeps you immobile for a long time, it can lead to swallowing dysfunction, which can then potentially cause pneumonia). Patients who did deep breathing exercises, used a spirometer, and practiced controlled coughing were much less likely to develop pneumonia during their hip fracture recovery period than those who didn't practice these breathing techniques, according to the study's results. Another study, published in the BMJ, found that people who practiced certain breathing exercises after having abdominal surgery were less likely to develop pneumonia post-surgery compared to those undergoing the same surgery who didn't practice any breathing exercises. (Related: These Breathing Techniques Will Change the Way You Exercise)
So, how well can these breathing techniques work for a COVID-19 infection? It's unclear, says Richard Watkins, M.D., an infectious disease physician in Akron, Ohio, and a professor of internal medicine at Northeast Ohio Medical University. "Deep breathing exercises might be beneficial, but they haven't been studied enough to know for sure," he explains. "It is likely that [breathing techniques like this] can help, but there is no evidence to suggest that it will help," notes Dr. Casciari.
Still, if nothing else, doing breathing techniques like this can "give you a sense that you are participating" in your health and well-being, says Dr. Schaffner.
Meanwhile, there are also clinical trials underway to investigate whether inhaling nitric oxide, a colorless gas that's produced naturally by your body that works to fight inflammation and relax tight muscles, can be used to help people with severe cases of COVID-19. Nitric oxide helps blood vessels dilate, causing more blood—and oxygen—to flow through the body, explains Dr. Casciari.
"We've used nitric oxide for years to ventilate patients who have severe pulmonary issues," says Dr. Casciari. "It's one of the many techniques now being used on the sickest of the sick coronavirus patients. When people get that sick, we pull out all the stops."
Bottom line: If you have COVID-19, symptoms that seem to indicate a COVID-19 infection (coronavirus testing is still very difficult to come by for many people), or even if you just want to work on your lung health, it doesn't hurt to try the breathing technique in Munshi's video, says Dr. Casciari. Just be aware that it can make you feel lightheaded—even Munshi admitted as much in the video. "You don't want to get too vigorous with it," cautions Dr. Casciari.
But, again, it's just a theory that these breathing techniques can help with anything related to a COVID-19 infection, says Dr. Watkins. That's why Dr. Parsons stresses the importance of doing your best to stay healthy, overall, in any ways you can (reminder: wash your hands, disinfect your personal space, practice social distancing, and call your doc if you develop any concerning symptoms).
"This [also] means looking after your mind and body," says Dr. Parsons. "Good nutrition and maintaining good control of underlying chronic medical conditions are probably the best approaches." (Here's a full breakdown of what to do if you think you have the coronavirus.)
The information in this story is accurate as of press time. As updates about coronavirus COVID-19 continue to evolve, it’s possible that some information and recommendations in this story have changed since initial publication. We encourage you to check in regularly with resources such as the CDC, the WHO, and your local public health department for the most up-to-date data and recommendations.