How to Increase Lung Capacity After a Respiratory Infection

As a pop group once said—all you need is love and the air you breathe. Although the Hollies released the song in 1974, times haven’t changed much, almost halfway into the 21st century—at least for the romantic types. 

However, if you’ve recently contracted a respiratory infection, you get the lyrics to a tee. Life really isn’t much if phlegm is constantly obstructing your airways. If shortness of breath also weighs on you, then you need to do something about it

Many lung problems, such as COPD, asthma, or COVID-19, can decrease your lung capacity.

So, suppose you’ve managed to clear out the symptoms of your infection; how do you recover and get back to your usual self? Increasing your lung capacity can help you breathe easier and resume your life as you remember it. 

Some lung exercises can help you restore your lung capacity and improve your lung health, too. We’ll list some of them below.  

However, first, let’s take a look at the difference between lung function and lung capacity.

Lung Function vs. Lung Capacity—What’s the Difference?

Lungs work to supply your body with oxygen. 

In particular, your lungs:

  • Take air in and out 
  • Oxygenate your bloodstream and the rest of your body
  • Remove carbon dioxide in the process. 

This is what we mean by lung function. But what about lung capacity? It’s the total amount of air that your lungs can hold. 

That said, while you can’t do much to change your lung function, lung capacity leaves room for improvement. 

That’s good news considering that our lung capacity changes with age and health problems. Our lungs lose their elasticity as we age, and our breathing muscles weaken too. 

Still, you can condition your lungs to hold more oxygen and help your body use oxygen more efficiently. Below are some breathing exercises (and a few other actionable steps) to help you do just that. 

1. Pursed-Lips Breathing Exercises

Pursed-lips breathing can help increase your lung capacity. Moreover, this breathing technique is often recommended to people recovering from respiratory infections. It’s reported to relieve chronic symptoms in people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma. [1

Also, there are some indications that the pursed-lip breathing technique can decrease the strain of respiratory conditions caused by COVID-19. According to the National Institute for Health and Care Excellence, the technique can help manage shortness of breath caused by the virus. [2]

Pursed-lips breathing slows down the rhythm of your breath and keeps your airways open for longer

Bonus points: if you practice pursed lip breathing, you’ll be able to breathe with much less effort as the technique reduces the work of breathing. 

(Image source: Unsplash)

On top of that, this breathing exercise is suitable for beginners as it’s much easier to practice than diaphragmatic breathing. It’s also a no-brainer technique you can do without help from the outside, meaning you can practice any time you have a breather (pun intended).  

Below are simple step-by-step instructions to start practicing the pursed lips breathing technique:

  1. Slowly inhale through your nostrils.
  1. Purse your lips as if you’re about to blow on something.
  1. Breathe out through your pursed lips making sure that breathing out takes at least twice as long as breathing in. Keeping track of time can be helpful. For example, try breathing in for 4 seconds and breathing out for 8 seconds.
  1. Repeat a few times until you feel more in control of your breathing. Revisit the exercise four to five times daily—until you start seeing the first results—fewer short breathing episodes or less strenuous breathing.

2. Diaphragmatic Breathing

If you were wondering how to clear out your lungs after a cold or pneumonia, you’ll like what’s coming up next. Diaphragm or belly breathing can not only help you increase lung capacity but can also help clear mucus from your lungs after pneumonia. [3

Belly breathing can open small airways in your lungs that have become narrowed, allowing more air to circulate. These deep breathing exercises can help restore lung capacity after a period of inactivity when your lungs have been pretty much compressed.

Diaphragmatic breathing is all about engaging your diaphragm muscle. As such, it’s beneficial for people with COPD since the condition affects the diaphragm cells so that they lose some of the force needed to contract and relax. [4]

Here’s how to practice diaphragmatic breathing: 

  1. Lie or sit in a comfortable place and relax your shoulders. 
  1. Place one of your hands on your chest and the other on your belly. Your bottom hand should do all the moving. The idea is to keep your chest as still as possible, so ensure your top hand is still. 
  1. Start breathing by inhaling through your nose for about 4 seconds. Feel the air moving into your belly and your bottom hand moving along. You’ll know you’re doing the exercise right if your abdomen expands. 
  1. Exhale slowly and steadily through your mouth for about 6 seconds while pressing down on your abdomen. Keep your mouth relaxed while doing this.
  1. Repeat for 5-15 minutes.
(Image source: Asthma & Lung UK)

Additional note: To ease your way through the learning curve (as it may be a steep one for some), sit up straight with your arms lifted or lean forward, pushing your hands against a vertical surface. This may help you engage your diaphragm muscles more easily. 

If you have COPD, consult your doctor on how to perform this exercise for the best results. Note that diaphragm breathing exercises can be effective in improving COPD symptoms, yet there’s no scientific evidence they can reverse the condition.

3. Physical Exercise

Physical exercise can help keep your lungs healthy, so if you were planning to drop those pilates classes — it’s a bad idea! Regular exercise can increase the strength of your muscles, improve oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange, and increase your lung capacity.  

But how does it work? Let’s explain.

  • Exercise that involves heavy or deep breathing can help your muscles use oxygen more efficiently. As the muscles get used to exercise, they require less oxygen to move, and produce less carbon dioxide. As a result, the air needed to perform a given exercise will significantly reduce. [5
  • Regular exercise will force your muscles to work harder, causing your respiratory muscles to get stronger. As your chest wall, diaphragm, and intercostal muscles (the muscles between your ribs) develop, your lung capacity increases—more air can circulate in your lungs, and you can breathe more easily.
Which exercises can help your lung capacity?
Exercise Type Effect on Lungs 
Aerobic ActivitiesAerobic activities such as taking a brisk walk, running, or recreational bicycling can help your lungs work more efficiently. These activities make your lungs work harder to supply additional oxygen to your muscles.
Muscle-strengthening exercisesMuscle-strengthening exercises such as weight-lifting, squats, or pilates improve your posture while toning your core and breathing muscles.

According to the American Lung Association, 30 minutes of moderate physical activity five days a week is recommended for adult individuals. [6

However, talk to your healthcare professional before starting a new exercise regimen if you have conditions such as asthma or COPD.

Respiratory Problems and N-Acetylcysteine 

N-Acetylcysteine (NAC) can help speed up the recovery from a respiratory infection. It plays a role in improving respiratory function but it also has an indirect effect on lung capacity (more on that later). 

High-dose NAC has been linked to improved respiratory function in people suffering from COPD. More precisely, higher doses of 600 mg of NAC twice a day were found to be effective. [7

NAC can also be helpful if you’re recovering from bronchitis. Its antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects help decrease inflammation and break up mucus.

NAC works by boosting glutathione levels in your body and thinning mucus in your bronchial tubes. As a result, it can help curb wheezing, coughing, and respiratory attacks in people suffering from bronchitis. [8]

(Image source: Cleveland Clinic)

And there’s more. NAC doesn’t only clear out your lungs after a cold or an infection, but it also indirectly increases lung capacity. Namely, NAC can improve a patient’s tolerability to exercise. This is good news considering that it’s frequently reduced in people suffering from COPD. [9]

In addition, NAC can help relieve chronic respiratory tract infections, which are common in patients with cystic fibrosis (CF). It can reportedly help the removal of sputum in these patients by reducing its viscosity. [10

Keep Your Lungs Healthy in the Long Run 

We won’t all agree that love and air are all we need to sustain life. Yet we’ll agree that not needing to gasp for air is a good idea. So, how about that, for starters? 

Getting rid of mucus and increasing lung capacity will help get you back on track after a respiratory infection. 

Try some of the exercises above, and you’ll know you did all there is to do to help yourself through it. The reward of unobstructed breathing will be well worth the effort.

Having these skills under your belt will help you preserve healthy lungs in the long run. 

Staying in the know is how you gain the upper hand in managing your health conditions. So, have a peek at our blog to stay updated on lung health and related health topics. 

Simply Nutrients is a doctor-owned premier provider of nutritional and wellness supplements. We’re here to support you on your health journey, so if any questions come up, feel free to drop us a message.













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Medically reviewed by Dr. Jamy Antoine, D.C. — by Chris Bowman — On October 19, 2022


Chris Bowman

Chris Bowman is the CEO and Co-Founder of and has over 15 years of experience in nutritional sciences and wellness. Simply Nutrients is a part of Dr. Jamy Antoine's Select Health Practice in Edina, Minnesota. Chris is passionate about helping people live healthier lives by using the best practices of nature, nutrition, and medicine.