A self-check method for detecting COVID-19 involving holding your breath has been amplified by multiple social media platforms. The claim is that if you can hold your breath for 10 seconds and not cough or experience discomfort, then you can’t have the virus because there is no COVID-19- related damage (fibrosis) in the lungs. But is this true?

This claim is false: holding your breath cannot tell you for certain whether you have coronavirus or not. It may give you an idea of whether we have a cough or shortness of breath, but only a specific test for coronavirus can tell us for sure if you currently have it or not.

Since this is a new virus we also don’t yet know if it causes lung fibrosis, which is a type of tissue scarring which normally takes a while to develop.

The main danger with this myth is that it could falsely reassure people who are infected and stop them from taking appropriate measures.

 

Where did the story come from?

Multiple social media platforms have circulated a self-check method for detecting COVID-19. Some of the posts falsely claim that the advice came from the Stanford Hospital Board or other un-named experts, but Stanford University tweeted to warn the public that misinformation was circulating that was not from them.

 

What is the basis for the claim?

The claims circulating suggest that by the time a COVID-19 patient gets a fever or a cough, their lungs are usually filled with ‘50% fibrosis’ and it is already ‘too late’. The breath holding test was said to be a way to detect it early.

However, there are several reasons why this statement is not true.

Lung fibrosis is the scarring or hardening of lung tissue, and it usually takes a long time to develop. It can have various causes including some autoimmune diseases, exposure to certain types of dust, and some prescription drugs.

Lung fibrosis can also be a complication of acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS), a clinical syndrome which COVID-19 can cause in severe cases. It is dangerous to imply that this can be diagnosed in the home.

While holding your breath might indicate whether you have a cough or shortness of breath, it is not a test for coronavirus.

 

What do trusted sources say?

The NHS 111 online platform for checking for coronavirus symptoms does not include the 10-second breath holding test as a valid way of confirming whether a person is infected with the virus or not.  The NHS website states that the symptoms to look out for are a high temperature or a new, continuous cough, and offers advice on what to do if you experience these. The definitive test for a current coronavirus infection involves testing for the virus’ genetic material in swabs from the respiratory tract.

If a healthcare worker suspects that a person has acute respiratory distress or other serious complications as a result of COVID-19 they would quickly arrange transfer to the appropriate zone of a designated hospital.

 

Citation

  1. USA TODAY. Fact check: Will holding your breath for 10 seconds reveal if you have coronavirus? Available at: https://eu.usatoday.com/story/news/factcheck/2020/03/22/coronavirus-fact-check-your-holding-breath-test-covid-19/2891572001/ (Accessed March 24, 2020)

 

Reading list

  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19). Testing. Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/symptoms-testing/testing.html (Accessed March 24, 2020)
  2. Long-term bone and lung consequences associated with hospital-acquired severe acute respiratory syndrome: a 15-year follow-up from a prospective cohort study. Zhang P, et al. Bone Res 8, 8 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41413-020-0084-5
  3. NHS 111 online. Check if you have coronavirus symptoms. Available at: https://111.nhs.uk/covid-19/ (Accessed March 24, 2020)