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Coronavirus and COVID-19

Coronavirus and living with a lung condition

On this page, we explain the things you need to know about coronavirus if you live with a long-term lung condition. We explain how you can reduce your risk of catching COVID-19, how your usual care may be affected and the things we should all be doing to prevent the spread of coronavirus.

On this page:

What is COVID-19?

COVID-19 is short for COronaVIrus Disease 2019. It is a disease that affects the lungs and airways. The coronavirus infection can cause symptoms similar to flu: 

  • a new continuous cough – you have started coughing repeatedly
  • high temperature – you feel hot to the touch on your chest or back
  • loss or change in your normal sense of smell, sometimes called anosmia - this can also affect your sense of taste, as the two are closely linked 
  • feeling short of breath. 

For most people the symptoms are mild. But some will develop severe breathing problems and other complications. The evidence so far shows that the risk of severe symptoms is higher in people with weakened immune systems, older people and people with long-term conditions, including some long-term lung conditions.

Your risk of becoming ill with COVID-19

Different factors affect your risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus. Having a long-term lung condition is one of them. But it isn’t the only factor that increases your risk. Age is the biggest risk factor, with those aged 80 and older at a greater risk of becoming seriously ill with coronavirus.

Everyone is different, and your own level of risk depends on different factors. This makes it difficult to give blanket advice about the level of risk from having a lung condition.

Coronavirus vaccines have been developed, which are all very effective. A recent study has shown that fully vaccinated people are three times less likely to be infected with coronavirus. Read more about the coronavirus vaccine.

Quit smoking

If you smoke, it’s vital to quit. People who smoke are five times more likely to get flu and twice as likely to get pneumonia. Quitting smoking is one of the best ways to protect yourself from viral infections, including coronavirus.

Reducing your risk of catching COVID-19

We should all be doing what we can to prevent the spread of coronavirus to help protect ourselves and others. This includes:

Should I wear a face covering?

We strongly encourage that everyone who can wear a face covering should continue to do so, in enclosed or crowded spaces. Wearing a face covering reduces the risk of spreading infection and protects people you come into contact with. Read our full guidance on face coverings and why you should wear one.

Get tested regularly when you have no symptoms

Regular testing is an important step in understanding and slowing the spread of coronavirus. Self-testing can help stop asymptomatic people from spreading the virus to others. Everyone in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland can now get free lateral flow tests for COVID-19.

Lateral flow tests can be taken at home and give you a result in 30 minutes. They should only be taken by people who are asymptomatic (have no symptoms). How often you should self-test may vary, depending on your circumstances (for example, your workplace requirements) and current national or local guidelines. If you can, you should take them regularly – twice a week. You might want to take one before seeing friends and family, or before going into work.

All results from lateral flow tests must be reported, whether the result is positive, negative, or void. Full instructions on how to complete the test and how to report results are given in each pack.

If you have symptoms of COVID-19, wherever you live in the UK, you should self-isolate and request a PCR test online.

Socialising with friends and family

Restrictions have eased across the UK. This means it’s now possible to meet up with friends and family – guidance on the amount of people you can meet and where will depend on where you live. 

We know that for some people, being able to meet up with family and friends is a cause for celebration. However, it’s important to remember that not everyone will feel as comfortable and confident. Depending on where you live in the UK, hospitality and retail venues, and transport providers are able to make their own rules regarding social distancing and face coverings. We’d advise you to check ahead to find out what’s expected.

Some people may want to continue social distancing, even if it’s no longer a legal requirement where they live. Others may prefer to meet outside or to know a person’s vaccination status ahead of meeting up with them. It’s important to be respectful and understanding that some people will want to take a more cautious approach.

Here are some conversation starters to help you navigate these situations. You might say:

  • “Just to let you know, I plan to wear a face covering for our train journey and I’d be grateful if you would wear one as well. This is because wearing one helps to reduce the spread of coronavirus and other viruses – while cases are still quite high, I’d like to carry on doing my bit to protect other people.”
  • “I was wondering if you’ve had both doses of your coronavirus vaccine yet? You get the best protection when you have both doses, and recent studies have shown that they do help prevent transmission.”
  • “When I come over to yours, is it OK if we keep the windows open? Good ventilation helps prevent the spread of the virus.”

Going into work

Employers should still be taking steps to protect the health and safety of their workers and they should be able to explain to you the measures they are taking to keep you safe. Guidance on what is legally required from your employer may vary, depending on where you live in the UK. If you are unsure, take a look at the government website for the nation you live in.

We understand that you may be worried about returning to work, especially if you have a public facing role. If you’re concerned about your health and safety in the workplace, you should speak with your employer in the first instance. If you can’t find a resolution, try contacting your trade union, getting advice from ACAS, or contacting Citizens Advice.

If you do go into work, think about how you will get there. Walk or cycle, if you can, or drive in your own car. If you need to use public transport, try speaking to your employer about changing your working hours, so you can travel at quieter times of the day.

You might also be able to try and reduce the number of people you spend time with on a regular basis. Your employer could support you in this by changing shift patterns so you’re with the same people each time, or by working in smaller teams.

Your usual care

You should still get the usual care for your condition, but some parts of it might be done a bit differently. Your health care professionals at your GP surgery or at hospital clinics might still be doing their appointments over the phone or by video. You can find out more about technology and your health care in our guide.

Some routine appointments may have been postponed, such as annual reviews of your care. But annual reviews are important to ensure your condition is managed as well as possible and to reduce the risk of a flare-up of your symptoms. So do book an annual review as soon as you are able to.

Some pulmonary rehabilitation courses may still be paused. Have a look at our online videos or download our exercise handbook to keep exercising.

In England, the NHS has advised that patients, staff, and visitors must continue to wear face coverings in health care settings, unless they are medically exempt. Health care settings include hospitals, GP practices, dental practices, optometrists, and pharmacies. Social distancing rules will also be in place in these settings. This is to protect patients as well as staff.

What if I get more out of breath than usual?

If you are:

  • struggling to breathe or
  • feel like you’re panting or
  • having difficulty speaking or
  • feeling like you’re choking

use your usual techniques to get your breathing under control. If these don’t work as quickly as they usually would, call 999 for help. The NHS is still there to look after you and it’s important to get the help you need for your lung condition.

If you are more breathless than usual and recognise the signs of a flare-up of your symptoms, follow your flare-up plan, if you have one. You’ll start with breathing control exercises. You may have learned them at pulmonary rehabilitation if you’ve been on a course. If you don’t have a plan or haven’t attended PR, try using your reliever inhaler more (if you have been prescribed one) and take a look at our advice about breathlessness, including ways to control your breathing. If that doesn’t help after a few hours, tell your GP or call 111.

In these worrying times, you may be feeling more anxious and this may also make you breathe faster and tense your breathing muscles. Read about anxiety and how to manage it if you’re living with a long-term lung condition.

Remember: Always get medical help if you get out of breath suddenly and unexpectedly.

What if my symptoms flare up?

It’s important you know the signs of an exacerbation or flare-up of your condition and have a plan in place for what to do. Take a look at our information on COPD and bronchiectasis flare-ups and the Asthma UK action plan. You should follow your usual steps to manage an exacerbation or flare-up, including getting medical help if you need to. If you have COPD, take a look at our COPD patient passport to make sure you’re getting the care you’re entitled to.

It may be tricky to work out whether new symptoms are due to COVID-19 or due to an exacerbation or flare-up of your condition. Typically, exacerbations of COPD, bronchiectasis and asthma are not associated with a high fever. If you’re feeling unwell and are unsure if it’s a flare-up, symptoms of COVID-19 or something else, call NHS 111 or get in touch with your health care professional.

It can be difficult to know whether symptoms you’re experiencing are COVID-19, or something else. Our symptom checker might help.

Go to BLF symptom checker (PDF, 234KB)

If you live with bronchiectasis and develop a fever and cough, but feel well, try to clear your airways more often and take paracetamol to reduce fever. If you become more unwell, seek medical advice. If you have a home supply of antibiotics, as many people with bronchiectasis do, only take this if your sputum increases in amount or becomes discoloured. Antibiotics will not work against a virus, but will treat a bacterial infection.

Measuring the oxygen levels in your blood

If you test positive for coronavirus, and after assessing how COVID is affecting you and your breathing, your GP may decide it would be useful for you to have a pulse oximeter at home. Pulse oximeters measure the oxygen levels in your blood. This will help your GP keep an eye on you at home and let them know if it will be safer for you to be seen and treated at the hospital.

If they decide you should have a pulse oximeter at home, your GP will talk to you about how to get one. They will tell you how to use it and how to record your blood oxygen levels in a diary – they may use a video call to talk you through this – and arrange how often you should let them know your readings. They'll also explain when you might need to seek medical help sooner.

Staying at home

Despite most lockdown restrictions lifting across the UK, there might still be a need for you to stay at home. For example, if you start showing symptoms of coronavirus, you’ll need to stay at home until you’ve taken a test.

If you need to stay at home, make sure you:

  • Have enough of your medication and take them as prescribed
  • Stay in touch with family, friends and neighbours and ask for help if you need it.

If you are caring for someone or have a carer, it’s a good idea to make a plan for how you will manage if one of you becomes unwell. Carers UK have some useful advice on planning for emergencies.

What support can I get if I need it?

If you need extra help, such as getting food shopping or medicine deliveries, support is available across the UK. 

In all four nations, you can get in touch with your local COVID Mutual Aid group. They’ll put you in touch with people who live locally who’ll be able to help you.

In England, if you meet certain criteria you can get support from the NHS volunteer responders. They can do things like helping you with shopping, getting prescriptions, or just checking in to see how you are doing. Register for support online or by calling 0808 196 3646. There are equivalent services in the devolved administrations. 

You might be entitled to welfare benefits. For more information on what you might be entitled to, take a look at our information or get in touch with the Citizens Advice.

Help if you’re feeling worried

It’s understandable to be feeling worried or anxious at a time like this, especially if you live with a long-term lung condition. But if you’re feeling like you’re struggling to cope, you should speak to your GP or health care professional. They’ll be able to offer you advice on things you can do to help you cope, and in some cases offer you treatment to help you feel better.

Here are some tips to help you look after your mental health:

  • Only look at reliable sources of information about coronavirus that are updated regularly, such as the NHS, to help you feel more in control
  • Watch out for bad habits and try to keep active. Try our exercise videos or the NHS website. Don’t increase the amount of alcohol you drink
  • Keep in touch with your friends and family – in stressful times we cope better with support from those close to us. Read about the importance of talking to others and how to get started in our technology for lung health guide
  • Ask for support if you need it. You can also get in touch with thousands of local mutual aid groups across the UK
  • Involve your family, including your children, in plans to keep well

The Mental Health Foundation has suggested these and other ways to look after your mental wellbeing during the outbreak. The government has also created guidance on looking after your mental wellbeing during the pandemic.

Our friendly helpline team is there for you Monday to Friday, 9am – 5pm. Call 03000 030 555.

What you can read next:

Last updated: Thursday 30 September 2021

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Last medically reviewed: October 2021. Due for review: October 2021

This information uses the best available medical evidence and was produced with the support of people living with lung conditions. Find out how we produce our information. If you’d like to see our references get in touch.