COVID-19 is a respiratory disease and it can cause lung damage and serious respiratory problems – as well as hosting other health problems.
First, it’s important to understand how the virus affected our lungs. When people become infected, the virus travels to mucous membranes and then to the lungs. To control the infection, the body responds with inflammation in the lungs. And this inflammation prevents the lungs from oxygenating the blood and removing carbon dioxide, leading the patient to breathe and suffer more serious illnesses.
But there are things you can do to improve your respiratory health, just by changing a few lifestyle factors, according to Dr. Robert Eitches, allergist and immunologist at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles. Improving your respiratory health doesn’t stop you from becoming infected, he said. But it has benefits that can reduce the severity of the disease if you’re infected and therefore your exposure to the virus.
This is how you can strengthen your body’s breathing capacity so that if it becomes infected with the Coronavirus, the chances of a serious illness may be lower.
Eitches said one of the most important steps to improve your respiratory health is to avoid anything that affects lung function, such as smoking cigarettes and vaping.
Smoking and vaping cause airway irritation of the lung, leading to permanent adverse effects on lung function by destroying lung tissue where air exchange occurs.
“Smoke is composed of small particles; when inhaled, the particles get stuck in the lungs,” Eitches said. “This begins a vicious cycle of permanent lung damage.”
Both activities can also suppress the immune system, which is needed to help fight infections.
Dr. Ryan Steele, an allergologist, immunologist and assistant professor at Yale Medical School, also warned about marijuana use, reports CNN.
“While there’s a lot of controversy about the benefits of the drug, anything you inhale into your lungs that’s a combustible product will certainly increase lung stress and the level of inflammation,” he said. “Even if it’s for medical purposes, you need to be careful with everything you’re turning on and inhaling in your lungs right now.”
Two other potentially harmful behaviors are sitting by the fireplace or lit candles, Eitches said. This could be somewhat disappointing, as both activities are relaxing. But like smoking or vaping, a fireplace, especially a wood-burning fireplace, “emits smoke into the environment, which you would then inhale and then deposit in your chest,” he said.
Many candles have metal wicks, which vaporize along with smoke and can cause similar lung damage.
Exercise can improve breathing capacity. Alveoli are small balloon-shaped air sacs arranged in groups along the lungs. They are an integral part of the respiratory system, as they exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide into and from the bloodstream.
When a person is sedentary, Steele said, that results in a phenomenon called “atelectasis,” when lung sacs don’t have enough air and collapse slightly. To improve the lung sac’s ability, people have to “breathe against resistance,” he added.
“You can think of it as a partially deflated balloon,” he suggested. “And what’s the way you keep the air inside a balloon? Tie a knot to increase resistance, so the air has to work harder to get out.”
Breathing against exercise resistance, “you’re actually helping to expand and keep the alveoli open” in your lungs, Steele said.
In addition to cardio, yoga and stretching, breathing exercises, such as pursed lip breathing and deep yogic nasal breathing, can help and are easy to do wherever you are, Eitches suggested. Breathing with pursed lips is when you breathe deeply with your mouth, close your lips, and then exhale through them as if you are inflating a balloon. Deep yogic nasal breathing offers similar benefits as it filters air through your nose.
Improving his lung function means “he would be less likely to achieve a critically low state of lung function, which in turn would make him not able to oxygenate his blood,” Eitches said.
“The respirators essentially breathe so you can try to open your airways. These exercises will teach you how to combat the breathing side effects [of covid-19] on your own.”
In addition, Steele said, exercise decreases inflammation in the body and can reduce the onset of acute respiratory distress syndrome, a serious complication in some patients hospitalized with Covid-19.
Reduces excess mucus build-up
“Mucus occurs naturally in our bodies and provides a very important role to maintain good health in our respiratory tract,” Steele said. “Helps capture [allergens, bacteria and viruses].”
In our respiratory tract, we have little hairs called cilia that take those threats out of our tract. Steele said we swallow most mucus, but when we have things that irritate our nasal passages, we can produce too much mucus and we can’t clean it. This creates a breeding ground for bacteria and viruses, and prevents oxygen from entering and leaving the lung pathways.
We also have mucus in our lungs. People with asthma produce too much mucus, which can predispose them to blockages and inflammation in their airways, Steele said.
Additionally, spicy foods that have capsaicin — chiles, jalapeños, cayenne, hot sauce — can dilute mucus.
There are some methods to control excess mucus: you can try a saline nasal spray if you have allergies. People with asthma can use their inhalers to decrease inflammation, reducing mucus. It may also work to take a hot shower or boil hot water to make a hot towel compress, as the steam is mixed with mucus to dilute it.
“[Mucus] is something where if you have very little, it’s bad because we can get infections,” Steele said. “If you have too much, it can block your ability to breathe and also increase the infection. So, you want the right amount.”
Minimize exposure to allergens
Spending more time indoors during the pandemic means we are increasingly exposed to the inner dust. Both can trigger allergies and asthma, Eitches said, and we need a working nose for clean air to enter the airways of our chest.
“When you’re allergic, you have inflammation of the inner tissue of your nose and excess mucus production,” he added. “When you can’t breathe through your nose, switch from nasal breathing to oral breathing.”
Handling dust through cleaning and an air filter, and managing pollen allergies with medications, can help avoid rubbing or ringing your nose to open it: if your hands aren’t clean, you run the risk of becoming infected with the virus.
For dust, a high-efficiency particle air filter would help remove most allergens from the air, Steele said. Air conditioning filters should also be cleaned. When pets leave, clean them before they enter the house to remove pollen.
If people practice these techniques, they may have a milder course of disease if they become infected with Coronavirus, Eitches said.
“These suggestions have an immediate benefit, but don’t expect to see dramatic results overnight,” he added. “Your body will subtly improve and you’ll be able to manage Coronavirus and other infections. The stronger your reference health, the stronger your body will be to fight infections,” Eitches said. “It’s like having the right ammunition to fight a war.”