Out of breath after Covid? You may have breathing pattern disorder

After recovering from Covid, some people continue to experience symptoms – including one known as breathing pattern disorder. Here’s what to do if you have it.

Most people diagnosed with Covid recover within about a month but, for some, symptoms of the virus linger.

Long Covid is believed to affect about five per cent of people and one symptom can be shortness of breath.

Officially known as breathing pattern disorder, it is usually associated with illnesses such as asthma or emphysema, or anxiety disorders.

But GPs and hospitals are seeing an increasing number of people who’ve had Covid left with an unnerving sense of “air hunger”.

Mary Birch, an expert on breathing retraining and author of Breathe, says BPD can be ongoing or intermittent and it can be a result of stress, physical or emotional trauma, or an illness like long Covid.

“People generally have a sense of not being able to get enough air, or they feel short of breath when they exercise,” Mary says.

“It can be quite a frightening sensation but if you do have breathing pattern disorder, there are things you can do to help yourself.”

How common is breathing pattern disorder post-Covid?

The most common symptoms experienced by long Covid sufferers of all ages are fatigue, shortness of breath, chest pain and brain fog, according to researchers at the Kirby Institute in NSW.

While there is limited data on how common breathing pattern disorders on people with long Covid, a study by the American College of Cardiology found that 88 per cent of people recovering from acute Covid infection had abnormal breathing patterns involving rapid, shallow breathing.

Adjunct Professor Karen Price, president of the Royal Australian College of General Practitioners, says while most people who contract Covid will only have mild symptoms and recover quickly, some people may experience ongoing symptoms in the weeks or months following.

“This can include breathlessness, cough, fatigue and body aches,” Adjunct Prof Price says.

“To avoid fatigue and breathlessness, people recovering from Covid-19 should pace their return to activities and exercise.”

How to manage breathing pattern disorder

“Mild symptoms (of breathing pattern disorder) might be managed through simple things like breathing exercises, staying well hydrated, trying steam inhalation to clear phlegm and using resting positions to steady breathing,” Adjunct Prof Price says.

Retraining our breathing pattern can help to tackle air hunger and breathlessness.

By tuning into your breathing patterns and becoming aware of a dysfunctional breathing pattern can help establish a new functional pattern.

Your GP or a specialist can help you work on ensuring you use the right muscles to breathe, and that you avoid breathing from your upper chest, and avoid mouth breathing or breathing too rapidly.

Mary’s breathe easy tips

  • Find a quiet place, sit down and notice your posture.Sit upright, back straight, relax your shoulders and let them gently drop.
  • Keep your head in alignment with your body, not thrust forward.Relax your jawline and bring your lips gently together.
  • Close your eyes and start to gently breathe through your nose.In your mind, count slowly from one to five as you breathe in, then from one to five as you exhale.
  • Focus on breathing using your belly or diaphragm – there should be less movement in your upper chest and shoulders when you breathe in and out.This is why good posture is important for breathing – when you slump forward or slouch, it constricts the diaphragm and it can’t expand and work as effectively.
  • Practise this breathing exercise for a few minutes during the day or before you go to bed so this breathing pattern becomes a habit.


Written by Sarah Marinos.