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COVID-19: Can Breath Holding Exercise Make Lungs Healthier?

| Reviewed By Susan Jennifer

Oxygen therapy is an essential medicine in the treatment of COVID-19. This is because the infection is known to lower the oxygen levels in the body by affecting the pulmonary cells and disrupting their functions, thus causing breathlessness as the most common symptom.

Oxygen therapy is a life-saving treatment method as it helps supply the filtered and purest form of oxygen to critically ill patients, ensuring sufficient levels of oxygen in their blood.

As the supply for supplemental oxygen is unable to meet the rising demand of increasing COVID-19 cases per day, other alternative therapies are implemented to improving lung functions and reducing the symptoms. [1]

Breath holding exercise is among the most effective alternative therapies to increase lung capacity and lower the complications associated with lung damage due to COVID-19.

With regard to this, the Ministry of Health and Family Welfare (MoHFW), in its recent press release, has highlighted the importance of breath holding exercise to reduce the need for oxygen in patients and lower the mortality rate due to the infection. [2]

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What Is Breath Holding Exercise And How Does It Work?

Breath holding exercise is an exercise type that is generally performed to improve breathing and lung functions, along with other benefits. These benefits may include preserving the health of stem cells, increasing regeneration of new tissues, boosting immunity against varieties of pathogens, relaxing the mind and the body, and many more.

Breath-holding helps give cells more time to absorb oxygen and produce the byproduct carbon dioxide. This increases the levels of carbon dioxide in the cells, which amount is not always bad for the body as the gas could be a lifesaver in the case of hyperventilation.

To mention, hyperventilation is a condition characterised by rapid breathing causing low levels of carbon dioxide. When the body gets deprived of this gas, symptoms like nausea, lightheadedness, irritability and dizziness occurs.

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How Breath Holding Exercise Helps In COVID-19

According to Dr Arvind Kumar, Chairman at the Institute of Chest Surgery, Medanta Founder and Managing Trustee, Lung Care Foundation, 90 per cent of COVID-19 patients experience some lung involvement due to coronavirus infection.

Out of that, 10-12 per cent may develop pneumonia, lung infection in which alveoli, the tiny air sacs present in our lungs get inflamed. A very small proportion of COVID-19 patients require oxygen support, when breathlessness continuously progresses.

Breath-holding exercise is very beneficial to patients at an early stage when the symptoms are mild. When these patients perform the exercise regularly, chances are that the future need for supplemental oxygen may reduce.

The exercise can also help examine the severity of the condition. If a person is unable to hold his/her breath for long, compared to previous times, it could be an early warning sign of COVID-19 infection. Also, if a person can hold the breath for longer, it could be a positive sign.

Though holding breath for more than 10 seconds without coughing or feeling discomfort could indicate good lung functioning and reduced risk of COVID-19, it is not an accurate diagnostic method to detect the infection, as clarified by the WHO. [3]

Dr Arvind also added that people who are hospitalised and those discharged on home oxygen can also use this technique after consulting their doctor, as it may help them reduce their oxygen requirement. Additionally, for healthy individuals, exercise may help keep their lungs healthy.

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Side Effects Of Holding The Breath

Holding the breath for too long during the exercise can cause certain side effects such as:

  • Increased buildup of carbon dioxide than the required amount.
  • Low heart rate.
  • Loss of consciousness.
  • Nitrogen narcosis due to the buildup of excess nitrogen gases in the blood.
  • Lung injury or total lung collapse.
  • Fluid builds up in the lungs.
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Brain damage
  • Damage of DNA due to prolonged breath-holding.
  • Note: A person cannot possibly die from holding breath, if they are doing this above for a long period. They may blackout, but the body will gasp in some air as it is programmed in that way, even in unconscious conditions like sleep.

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Step By Step Guide To Perform Breath Holding Exercise

  • Sit straight and keep the hands on your thighs.
  • Now, open the mouth and inhale as much air as you can, so as to fill your chest to the maximum.
  • Then, close the lips tightly.
  • Try to hold your breath for as long as you can.
  • Note down the time you were able to hold your breath.
  • Note: You can practice breath-holding exercises once an hour and gradually try to increase the duration of holding. People with breath holding time of 25 seconds and above are considered to be safe. Remember not to try too hard to hold the breath and get exhausted in the procedure.

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Why Is It Important to Detect COVID-19 At An Early Stage?

Since the advent of the COVID-19 infection, it is clear that the virus primarily infects the lungs and cause multiple respiratory functions such as breathlessness, sore throat, cough and cold, along with dropping the oxygen levels in the body leading to COVID‐19‐induced respiratory distress and hypoxia.

As said by Dr Arvind, the most common symptoms in the first wave were fever and cough, while the second wave is known to cause varieties of symptoms such as sore throat, conjunctivitis, runny nose, headache, body pain, rashes, vomiting, nausea and diarrhoea.

Usually, when patients get infected by a coronavirus, they experience fever and other symptoms after three-four days and till the time they get their test results, five to six days already pass. This causes an increase in the viral load in the body and the spread of infection in the lungs.

Other factors that determine lung involvement during COVID-19 include the patient's age, body mass index, any pre-existing lung conditions, smoking history, use of steroid and other chronic conditions like diabetes, hypertension or any autoimmune system, adds Dr Arvind.

Altogether, these factors delay the treatment of the COVID-19 at an early stage and make the condition worse. Therefore, detection of COVID-19 at an early image is important to reducing the symptoms before they get severe.

Also, with the mutation of the COVID-19 virus that could cause severe complications in patients within two days, early detection gets even more important to reducing mortality.

To Conclude

Perform breath-holding exercise daily and improve your lung functions. Follow the step by step guide provided above. Remember not to try too hard to hold the breath and get exhausted in the procedure.

Stay safe

Susan JenniferPhysiotherapist
Masters in Physiotherapy
Susan Jennifer
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