Can changing your breathing pattern reduce coronavirus exposure?

This blog is based upon our breathing  research that began in the 1990s, This  research helped identify dysfunctional breathing patterns that could contribute to illness. We developed coaching/teaching strategies with biofeedback to optimize breathing patterns, improve health and performance (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994; Peper, Martinez Aranda and Moss, 2015; Peper, Mason, and Huey, 2017).

For example, people with asthma were taught to reduce their reactivity to cigarette smoke and other airborne irritants (Peper and Tibbitts, 1992Peper and Tibbetts, 2003).  The participants  first learned effortless slow diaphragmatic breathing and then were taught that the moment they would become aware of an airborne irritant such as cigarette smoke, they would hold their breath and relax their body.  Then they moved away from the polluted air while exhaling very slowly through their nose and when the air was clearer they would inhale and continue effortless diaphragmatically breathing (Peper and Tibbetts, 1994).  From this research we propose that people may reduce exposure to the coronavirus by changing their breathing pattern; however the first step is prevention by following the recommended public health guidelines.

  • Social distancing (physical distancing while continuing to offer social support)
  • Washing your hands with soap for at least 20 seconds
  • Not touching your face
  • Cleaning surfaces which could have been touched by other such as door bell, door knobs, packages.
  • Wearing a mask and gloves

Reduce your exposure to the virus when near other people by changing your breathing pattern 

Normally when startled or surprised, we tend to gasp and inhale air rapidly. When someone sneezes, coughs or exhales near you, we often respond with a slight gasp and inhale their droplets. To reduce inhaling their droplets (which may contain the coronavirus virus), implement the following:

  • When a person is getting too close
    • Hold your breath with your mouth closed and relax your shoulders (just pause your breathing) as you move away from the person.
    • Gently exhale through your nose (do not inhale before exhaling)-just exhale how little or much air you have
    • When far enough away, gently inhale through your nose.
    • Remember to relax and feel your shoulders drop when holding your breath.  It will last for only a few seconds as you move away from the person.  Exhale before inhaling through your nose.
  • When a person coughs or sneezes
    • Hold your breath, rotate you head away  from the person and move away from them while exhaling though your nose.
    • If you think the droplets of the sneeze or cough have landed on you or your clothing, go home, disrobe outside your house, and put your clothing into the washing machine. Take a shower and wash yourself with soap.
  • When passing a person ahead of you or who is approaching you
    • Inhale before they are too close and exhale through your nose as you are passing them.
    • After you are more than 6 feet away gently inhale through your nose.
  • When talking to people outside
    • Stand so that the breeze/wind hits both people from the same side so that the exhaled droplets are blown away from both of you (down wind).

These  breathing skills seem so simple; however, in our experience with people with asthma and other symptoms, it took practice, practice, and practice to change their automatic breathing patterns. The new pattern is pause (stop) the breath and then exhale through your nose. Remember, this breathing pattern is not forced and with practice it will occur effortlessly.

The following blogs offer instructions for mastering effortless diaphragmatic breathing.

https://peperperspective.com/2017/06/23/healing-irritable-bowel-syndrome-with-diaphragmatic-breathing/

https://peperperspective.com/2018/10/04/breathing-reduces-acid-reflux-and-dysmenorrhea-discomfort/

https://peperperspective.com/2019/03/24/anxiety-lightheadedness-palpitations-prodromal-migraine-symptoms-breathing-to-the-rescue/

https://peperperspective.com/2017/03/19/enjoy-sex-breathe-away-the-pain/

https://peperperspective.com/2015/02/18/reduce-hot-flashes-and-premenstrual-symptoms-with-breathing/

https://peperperspective.com/2015/09/25/resolving-pelvic-floor-pain-a-case-report/

References

Peper, E., Martinez Aranda, P., & Moss, E. (2015). Vulvodynia treated successfully with breathing biofeedback and integrated stress reduction: A case report. Biofeedback. 43(2), 103-109.

Peper, E., Mason, L., Huey, C. (2017).  Healing irritable bowel syndrome with diaphragmatic breathing. Biofeedback. (45-4). /

Peper, E., and Tibbetts, V. (1992).  Fifteen-Month follow up with asthmatics utilizing EMG/Incentive inspirometer feedback. Bio­feedback and Self-Regulation. 17 (2), 143-151. 

Peper, E. & Tibbetts, V. (1994). Effortless diaphragmatic breathing. Physical Therapy Products. 6(2), 67-71.  Also in:  Electromyography:  Applications in Physical Therapy. Montreal: Thought Technology Ltd. 

Peper, E.  and Tibbitts, V.  (2003). Protocol for the treatment of asthma.  In:  Zheng, Y. (ed).  Clinical Practice of Biofeedback. Beijing:  High Education Press (HEP). 163-176. ISBN 7-04-011420-8

 


Coronavirus risk in context: How worried should you be?

The coronavirus which causes coronavirus disease 2019 (COVID-19) appears to be a highly contagious disease. Some older people and those who are immune compromised are more at risk.  The highest risk are for older people who already have cardiovascular, diabetes, respiratory disease, and hypertension. In addition, older men over 80 years are much more at risk; however, the majority are smokers who have a compromised pulmonary system. Previous meta analysis showed that smoking was consistently associated with higher risk of hospital admissions after influenza infection. Nevertheless, it is reasonable to assume that over time all most all of us will become exposed to the virus, a few will get very sick, and even fewer will die.

The preliminary data suggests that most people who become infected may not even know they are infectious.  The absolute risk that one would die of this disease is low although if you do become very sick it may be more dangerous than the normal flu; however, the fear of this disease may be out of proportion compared to other health risks. For detailed analysis and graphic summaries see the updated research reports on the Coronavirus disease (COVID-19) by Our World in Data and Information is beautiful. These reports make data and research on the world’s largest problems understandable and accessible.

It is worthwhile to look at the absolute risk of COVID-19.  To read that more than 51,000 people world wide have died in the last three months is terrifying especially with the increasing death rate in Italy and Europe; however, it needs to be understood in context of the size of the population.  The epicenter of this disease was Wuhan and Hubei Provence, China with a total population of about 60 million people.  Each year about 427,200 people die in the Wuhan and Hubei Province (the annual death rate in China is 7.12 deaths per 1000 people). Without this new viral disease, about 71,200 people would have died during the same two month period.  The question that has not been discussed is how much did the total death rate increase.  Would it be possible that some of the people who died would have died of other natural causes such as the flu?

The World Health Organization (WHO) and governments around the world should be lauded for their attempt to reduce the spread of the virus. On March 6, 2020, the United States Congress allocated $8. billion dollars to fight and prevent the spread of COVID-19. 

This funding will only partially prevent the spread of the virus because some people have no choice but to go to work when they are sick–they do not receive paid sick leave! This is true for about 30 percent of the American workers who have no coverage at work or the millions of self-employed workers (e.g. gig/freelance workers, waiters, cashiers, drivers, nannies, house cleaners).

To reduce the risk of the spreading COVID-19, anyone who feels sick or thinks they have been exposed, should receive paid sick leave so that they can stay home and self-isolate. The paid sick leave should be Federally funded and provide basic income for those whose income would be lost if they did not work.  Although it is possible that a few people will cheat and take the paid sick leave when they are well, this is worth the risk to keep the rest of population healthy. To provide possible relief, at the moment the House and Senate are working on a greater than $1 trillion dollar stimulus package. 

Personal and government responses to health risks are not always rational. 

Funding for health and illness prevention is driven by politics. For example, gun violence results in more than 100,000 people being injured each year and more than 36,000 killed—an average of 100 per day. Gun violence is a much more virulent disease than COVID-19 and more than 1.7 million Americans have died from firearms since 1968.

The Federal Government response to this gun violence epidemic has been minimal. For the first time since 1996 did the 2020 federal budget include $25 million funding for the CDC and NIH to research reducing gun-related deaths and injuries.

It is clear that the government response does not always focuses its resources on what would reduce injury and death rates the most.  Look at the difference in the national response to COVID-19 virus that has killed more than 5,780 people in the USA ($8.5 billion for the initial response) as compared gun violence that kills 36,000 people a year in the USA ($25 million).

Be realistic about the actual risk of COVID-19 without succumbing to fear.

COVID-19 is a pandemic and I expect that 30% to 70% of us will be infected this year.  Hopefully, in the next 18 months an effective vaccine will be developed.  In the mean time, there is no known treatment, thus optimize health and reduce the exposure to the coronavirus. Use the same precautions and treatment as you would do for the flu.

To make sense of the danger of COVID-19, look at it in context to the flu. Depending upon the severity the  flu, 9,000,000 to 45,000,000 people get sick from flu and between 12,000 to 61,000 die from its complications. as shown below in Figure 1.  

influenza-burden-chart2-960pxFigure 1. The estimated U.S. influenza burden by year (from: https://www.cdc.gov/flu/about/burden/index.html)

This year the CDC estimates that there have been 20,000 to 40,000 deaths in the United States so far this year.  For comparison that is a thousand times  more deaths in the United States than have been blamed on the coronavirus so far.