Scrolling through health or fitness TikTok this week, you might land on a video that explains it will give you a test for your lung health. The instructions vary, but you’ll be told to hold your breath while you watch an animated timer tick down. “If you can hold your breath from point A to B then you are in the safe zone,” a typical example advises. And if you’re wondering what to do about your supposedly unsafe lungs, sooner or later the algorithm will serve you lung detox recipes.
This is all bullshit, for a number of reasons.
Breath holding is not a useful test of lung health
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There’s a small grain of truth in this: if you have a serious health issue that affects your lungs, like COPD or congestive heart failure, you might not be able to hold your breath as long as someone who doesn’t have that condition.
But instead of taking TikTok breath-holding tests, the American Lung Association suggests you see your doctor if you notice shortness of breath, coughing, wheezing, chest tightness, fatigue, or if you experience recurring lung infections. If you’re coughing up blood, or if you’ve been coughing up mucus for a month or more, those are definitely signs you should get checked out.
So why is social media full of breath-holding tests? Because they are easy videos to make. Creators can spin them any way they want: here’s a fun game. Or, let me make you worry that you are dying. Or, here’s a baseline test for a self-improvement journey you can go on.
The history of breath-holding tests gets weird
The rabbit hole goes deep, and gets weird. One video says that a certain breath-holding test is “the test to see if you’re healthy” and the “#1 test for longevity,” and calls it BOLT, which stands for Body Oxygen Level Test. This test asks you to exhale and then hold your breath until you feel the urge to breathe, and it seems to have been created or popularized under that name by a company called Oxygen Advantage. That company sells, and I promise I am not making this up, classes on how to breathe.
This version of the breath holding test has spinoffs all over TikTok. Some of them cite scientific literature—often this 1975 paper about a breath-holding test. But the test in that paper allowed people to inhale first, and to hold their breath as long as possible; also, the subjects were breathing air mixtures including specific amounts of carbon dioxide, rather than room air. And the kicker: the test was being proposed to identify problems in people who were able to hold their breath longer than expected. In other words, the opposite of everything the TikTokers are saying.
Breath-holding tests have been proposed as measures of fitness and health in the past, but there’s a reason you only hear about them on TikTok these days is that they don’t work. And we’ve known this for a while: Here’s a 1947 study presenting data to argue that breath-holding tests don’t correlate at all with cardio fitness (one of the things TikTokers claim you’ll improve if you can hold your breath longer).
Meanwhile, our friends at the American Lung Association, who actually study and treat lung diseases, give examples of lung function tests that doctors find useful. These include spirometry (where you blow into a device), lung volume assessments, and exercise tests.
You can’t “detox” your lungs with herbs
So what do all these TikToks want you to do with your newfound knowledge that you can’t hold your breath as long as you hoped and/or should be able to? Well, a lot of them are trying to sell you stuff. (Mostly supplements, occasionally a meditation gadget, sometimes weight-loss programs.)
But then there are the detox recipes: “This one’s for my smokers and vapers,” the narrator of one video says as they make a tea out of ginger, ginseng, thyme, elderberry, and mullein leaf. Another recommends that “all my ston3rs” add “lung tonic herbs like mullein & marshmallow root to their sesh to save their lungs in the future.”
A few of these recipes and products are aimed at people who are quitting smoking or vaping, but most seem to be the opposite: “If you’re gonna keep vaping in me, at least get the gunk out,” says a smiling pair of lungs in one ad for herbal supplements. “POV: You smoke every day but you use natural herbs to detox your lungs,” says another. “Think your lungs look like this?” a video reads while showing you a pair of sooty black smoker’s lungs in an anatomy lab. “Then try this. All you need is ginger and water.”
It’s a classic bait-and-switch: swapping something you know you need (to quit smoking) for something you want (to not have to quit smoking, because you are drinking herbal tea).
You cannot, in fact, detox your lungs. Drinking herbal tea has no special properties. And inhaling steam, with or without herbs like mullein leaf infused into it, does not have evidence behind it either. If it makes you feel good, fine; this is a traditional way to loosen mucus when you’re sick. But it’s doing nothing to counteract the damage that smoking or vaping has done to your lungs.
By the way, mucus is not a cause of lung disease (much less the one root cause of all disease, as another video claimed). It is part of how your body defends against damage and infection. So if you’re concerned about your lung health, please see an actual doctor.