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13 Tips for Healthy Lungs During COVID-19 and Beyond, According to MDs

There are things you can do in the short- and long-term to keep your lungs working optimally.

You're not alone if, prior to the novel coronavirus pandemic, you thought only chain-smokers needed to worry about their lung health. But now, it makes sense to wonder if there's anything you can do to safeguard your lungs from some of the symptoms associated with this never-before-seen strain of coronavirus, like coughing, shortness of breath, and pneumonia.

How does coronavirus affect lung health?

What does the coronavirus have to do with your lungs, exactly? Board certified in Family Medicine practitioner Michael Richardson, MD with One Medical says: "When the virus enters your lungs, it can lead to irritation of the lung lining, causing you to cough."

The virus can cause so much irritation of the lung lining that it causes pneumonia, which is when air sacs in your lungs become inflamed and may end up filling with fluid, he says.

The more inflammation and fluid in your lungs, the harder it becomes to breathe, which can be life-threatening for those with weaker immune systems, such as the elderly and people with significant pre-existing medical conditions, he explains.

MDs' best tips for short- and long-term lung health

No matter who you are and what your health status is, taking care of your lungs is an important part of taking care of your overall health and wellbeing. With that in mind, here's what doctors say you can do to keep your lungs functioning optimally, during the COVID-19 outbreak and beyond.

Practice social distancing

social distancing

"Right now, the best thing you can do for your lungs is to do your best and avoid contracting COVID-19," says Dr. Richardson. The best way to do that? "Practice social distancing: avoid large groups and keep 6 feet away from others, per the CDC's recommendation," he says.

See a doctor when you need to

doctor and patient

While the majority (80 percent) of people who contract coronavirus only experience mild flu-like symptoms, 20 percent of those who contract the virus will also contract pneumonia—an inflammatory lung condition caused by a viral infection, which will cause them to have difficulty breathing.

"Basically, what's happening is that there is so much inflammation in the lung tissues that you stop being able to get an adequate amount of oxygen per every inhalation," says Dr. Osita Onugha, MD, chief of thoracic surgery and assistant professor of thoracic surgical oncology at John Wayne Cancer Institute at Providence St. John's Health Center in Santa Monica, CA.

The only way to treat it? "By increasing the concentration of oxygen you're able to get through something like a face mask or ventilator," he says. While news about limited ventilators may lead you to believe that "toughing it out" at home is the best way to deal, according to Dr. Onugha that is completely false. "If you have coronavirus, and you're having shortness of breath, it's important for you to get treatment in a hospital. If you don't, you run the risk of serious life-threatening consequences."

Take Tylenol instead of ibuprofen

lung health coronavirus tylenol

Whether you have a headache, a coronavirus-related fever, or just period cramps while there's a coronavirus pandemic going on, take Tylenol, not ibuprofen or Aspirin for your symptoms, says CDC vaccine provider, Dr. Michael Hall.

Why? Because while ibuprofen and Aspirin—non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs, or NSAIDs— can help lower fevers, they may be doing so at a cost of dampening your immune response. Although the evidence for this is purely anecdotal and rests on a few assumptions, it may be safer to take Tylenol (also known as Acetaminophen) during the pandemic, as a precaution.

That said, while Tylenol may help with any lung inflammation you're experiencing as a result of coronavirus (or any other ailment), do not self-prescribe Tylenol. "If you are having difficulty breathing, think you have coronavirus, or have shortness of breath, make sure you're evaluated by a doctor," says Dr. Hall. "Taking Tylenol is not a substitute for that."

Quit smoking, for good

lung health stop smoking

Hey, you knew this tip was coming so might as well get it out of the way now. As a refresher: "Smoking cigarettes is incredibly bad for our lungs because it literally causes damage to our lung tissues and damages their ability to function," says Dr. Richardson.

If you are a smoker or have smoked and are reading this, take comfort, according to Dr. Onugha, "With cigarette smoking, some things return back to baseline within minutes, some things take days and weeks, some things take months and years." He says, "What's important to know is that once you stop smoking, your lungs will not get any less healthy. They will only get healthier." Pretty promising, right?

And that means vaping, too

lung health vaping

Switching from cigarettes to e-cigarettes, or picking up vaping because you think it's cool and trendy (spoiler alert: it's not!) does your lungs a huge disservice. According to the American Cancer Society, the safest option is to avoid both vaping and smoking altogether. Why is vaping so bad, exactly? For starters, "Most vape pens have a Vitamin E additive in them. While vitamin E sounds healthy, it can actually be detrimental to your lungs," says Dr. Onugha. That's because vitamin E is a fat soluble (AKA *not* water soluble) vitamin, which means rather than absorbing into the body, it basically just sits there, clinging to and harming the lungs.

Beyond that, Dr.Richardson says, "Not much is known about the short and long term effects of vaping since it has only been around for a few years and the vape technology continues to evolve." But, he says, "We do know that last year several people were hospitalized for vaping-related injuries."

If you're vaping to wean off cigarette smoking, you might use another nicotine replacement therapy like nicotine gum, instead. If you're vaping because you like the Fruity Pebble taste, have a big 'ole bowl of cereal. And if you just want to ramp up your Cool Factor, buy some chunky sneakers and "gently washed" Levis instead.

Relocate to a tropical island

lung health tropical island

Let us explain the reasoning: "It's not just smoking that introduces toxins into your lungs," says Dr. Richardson. "Pollution can, too." And guess where air toxins are highest? Ding, ding, ding, you guessed it: cities. "Smog-filled cities are not the optimal environment for your lungs because every day little toxic particles in the air can get trapped in your lungs," says Dr. Onugha.

Richardson says, "Living near highways and bus terminals can significantly increase your risk for lung disease due to the pollution caused by traffic and car exhaust, too."

So what does this mean for you? Depends. For folks with asthma, lung cancer, and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPT) this may be reason-enough to move. For the general population it likely is not. However, if you've been looking for a way to convince your significant other to move off the grid or to a tropical Island, go ahead and send them this article. You're welcome.

Stay hydrated

stay hydrated

You know gulping down water does everything from your skin to your sex life (hellooo natural lubrication) a solid. But how does H2O affect your lungs? Dr. Hall says: "There is a thin layer of mucus in your lungs, which, much like your saliva, is thicker when you're dehydrated and thinner when you're well-hydrated." Staying well-hydrated helps keep that layer of mucus thin, which helps your lungs function better, he says.

Factors like age, weight, activity level, the weather, and gender all affect exactly how much water you need. But a good general rule is to get 0.5 to 1.0 ounces of water per every pound you weigh. Daily.

Try oregano oil

oregano oil

This is absolutely not a M-U-S-T, but if you're looking for a natural booster to your lung health, Dr. Hill says an oregano oil supplement is the way to go. "Due to having high levels of a compound called carvacrol, oregano oil has antimicrobial properties." Meaning, it's thought to help fight off certain types of bacteria. It's also been thought to have anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties, which for someone with an infection that affects the lungs or could infect the lungs, may be helpful, he says.

Different supplements will have different dosing recommendations, so be sure to follow the instructions on the label. And chat with your healthcare provider ahead of time because oregano oil can interfere with the effectiveness of some prescription medications.

Or take some thyme

dried thyme

"Thyme supplements have a long history of being used to treat bronchitis, whooping cough, and sore throat," says Dr. Hall. So, if you have any of those lung-unfriendly ailments, he recommends giving the time tested remedy a whirl. "You can either get an ingestible thyme supplement, make some thyme tea, or implement the herb into your cooking," he says.

Prioritize good posture

Woman sitting at desk upright good posture

Unless you're a professional dancer, chances are your posture is about as bad as Daddio is at dancing (very). Unfortunately, that's no good for your lungs. "Lungs are made up of soft tissue, and they only expand as much as you make room for," says Dr. Hall. Sit slumped in your chair "squishes" your lungs, which limits how much air you can take in. While, "sitting up straight gives your lungs more room to expand, which allows your lungs to capture more air and oxygen per breath."

If you have a tough time remembering to sit up straight, set a "posture" alarm on your phone, so that every 30, 60, or 90 minutes a little buzzer reminds you to quit slouching.

Eat more oranges

orange slices

It's pretty straightforward: "Anything that helps your overall immune system, helps your lungs," says Dr. Onugha. "And we know vitamin C is good for your immune system," he says.

The most predictable way to get vitamin C? A glass of OJ or juicy orange. But if you're not a citrus fan, kale, strawberries, pineapple, red bell peppers, and Brussel sprouts will hit you with a solid serving as well.

Nosh on mushrooms


"Mushrooms, like fatty fishes, eggs, oysters, and caviar, are high in vitamin D," says board certified cardiologist and nutrition Expert, Dr. Luiza Petre MD. And Vitamin D, she says, can help the body fight against viral infections. And viral infections, as we've seen with the novel coronavirus, can affect the lungs. "Mushrooms also help boost the immune system by providing other vitamins and minerals like copper and niacin, too," she says.

Snack on sardines


Or, if chowing down salty fish isn't your jam, chop them up and put them in your Caesar salad dressing. "Sardines are very high in omega-3 fatty acids, which enhance the function of your immune system and keep it operating optimally," says Dr. Petre.

If you don't like sardines, you can also eat salmon, avocado, and nuts, or try an omega-3 fatty acid supplement, she says.

The easy way to make healthier comfort foods.

Eat This, Not That! is constantly monitoring the latest food news as it relates to COVID-19 in order to keep you healthy, safe, and informed (and answer your most urgent questions). Here are the precautions you should be taking at the grocery store, the foods you should have on hand, the meal delivery services and restaurant chains offering takeout you need to know about, and ways you can help support those in need. We will continue to update these as new information develops. Click here for all of our COVID-19 coverage, and sign up for our newsletter to stay up-to-date.
Gabrielle Kassel
Gabrielle Kassel is a New York–based fitness and wellness writer. Read more about Gabrielle
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