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What Causes Heavy Breathing?

Overview

You’ll notice your breathing getting heavier whenever you exercise or climb a flight of stairs. You breathe harder because your body’s need for oxygen increases with exertion.

Heavy breathing when you’re not moving is a sign that your body has to work harder to get enough oxygen. This may be because less air is getting in through your nose and mouth, or too little oxygen is making its way into your bloodstream. Anything from a stuffed nose to a lung disorder, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can make your breathing more labored.

Read on to learn more about causes of heavy breathing and how to treat this symptom.

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Causes

What causes it?

To understand what causes heavy breathing, you need to know how breathing works. Breathing is a coordinated effort that involves your nose, mouth, and lungs. When you inhale, air enters through your nose and mouth, and makes its way into your lungs. It enters the balloon-like air sacs, called alveoli. From there, oxygen moves into your bloodstream to be transported to your body.

Following are some possible causes for heavy breathing.

Colds and sinus problems

Viruses and bacteria can clog your nasal passages, making it harder to draw enough oxygen into your airways. Colds increase the amount of mucus your body produces. Sinus infections cause inflammation in the sinuses, the air-filled spaces behind your nose and cheeks.

Other symptoms of a cold include:

  • nasal discharge
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • headache or body aches
  • low-grade fever

Other symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • nasal discharge that may be green
  • pain or tenderness in your face
  • headaches
  • coughing
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Infections caused by viruses will clear up on their own over time. Sinus infections caused by bacteria are treated with antibiotics.

Allergies

Allergies are an overreaction by your immune system to normally harmless substances in your environment, like pollen, grass, or pet dander. When your immune system reacts, it triggers your body to release the chemical histamine. If you’re unfamiliar with the symptoms of an allergy, you may think you’re coming down with a cold. An allergic reaction causes symptoms like these:

  • sneezing
  • stuffed and runny nose
  • watery eyes
  • hives, rash
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

The most serious kind of allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis. It can cause your throat and mouth to swell up, making it hard to breathe.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways in your lungs become inflamed. This swelling makes it harder for air to get into your lungs.

Other symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • tight feeling in your chest

You can take asthma medicines daily or during attacks to open up your airways and ease your breathing.

Respiratory infections

Pneumonia, bronchitis, and tuberculosis are lung infections caused by bacteria or viruses. Other symptoms of these infections include:

  • cough that may bring up clear or blood-tinged mucus
  • fever
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • chest discomfort
  • appetite loss

Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Viruses often clear up on their own in a week or two.

Anxiety

Sometimes the cause of labored breathing isn’t physical but psychological. When you’re anxious, your body tenses up and you start to breathe faster, among other effects. This rapid, heavy breathing is also called hyperventilating. You might also feel chest pain that’s easy to mistake for a heart attack.

Other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • excessive sweating
  • shaking
  • churning feeling in your stomach
  • diarrhea

You can treat anxiety with relaxation exercises, therapy, and antianxiety drugs.

Obesity

Carrying around a lot of extra weight puts pressure on your lungs, which have to work harder to expand. If you have a BMI of 30 or higher, the definition of obesity, you might have more trouble breathing, especially when you exercise.

Obesity can also lead to:

  • heart problems
  • diabetes
  • sleep apnea
  • other health conditions

Weight loss, ideally with diet and exercise, is the best way to combat health issues related to obesity.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis, emphysema, and asthma, that make it harder to breathe. It’s often caused by smoking-related lung damage.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • chronic cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • increased mucus production
  • wheezing

Medicines, pulmonary rehabilitation, and supplemental oxygen can help you manage these symptoms.

Heart failure

You can get heart failure when a condition like coronary artery disease or a heart attack damages your heart to the point where it can’t effectively pump blood out to your body. Shortness of breath is caused by blood backing up in the blood vessels and fluid leaking into your lungs.

Other symptoms of heart failure include:

  • chest pain
  • fast heartbeat (palpitations)
  • cough
  • dizziness
  • swelling in your legs or ankles
  • rapid weight gain

Medicines, implantable devices, and surgery are all treatments for heart failure.

Lung cancer

Trouble breathing and shortness of breath can be symptoms of lung cancer, especially in the late stages of the disease.

Other symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • chest pain
  • increased phlegm production
  • hoarse voice
  • coughing up blood

How treatable the cancer is depends on its stage, which is determined by the size of the tumor and whether it has spread.

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Sleeping causes

What causes heavy breathing while you’re sleeping?

You might not notice heavy breathing if it happens while you’re asleep. Your bed partner might have to alert you that you’re making a lot of noise when you breathe.

One common cause of heavy breathing at night is obstructive sleep apnea. In this condition, your throat muscles relax and block the opening to your airways. This blockage repeatedly stops your breathing throughout the night.

Other signs that you have sleep apnea include:

  • loud snoring
  • morning headaches
  • sleepiness during the day
  • irritability
  • trouble remembering or concentrating

One of the main treatments for sleep apnea is continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP). It uses a device consisting of a mask that blows air into your airway while you sleep. You can also try an oral appliance to hold your jaw in the correct position at night.

Other causes of heavy breathing while you sleep include:

  • nasal congestion from a cold or respiratory infection
  • COPD
  • heart failure
  • obesity
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Seeking help

When should you see a doctor?

See your doctor if your breathing becomes heavy and doesn’t go away on its own within a week or two. Call right away for help if you have these symptoms, which could indicate a medical emergency:

  • trouble catching your breath
  • chest pain or tightness
  • blood in your phlegm
  • swelling of your mouth or tightness in your throat
  • dizziness, fainting
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Treatment

How is it treated?

Treatment for heavy breathing depends on what caused it.

For lung conditions like asthma and COPD, treatments include:

  • medicines such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids to bring down inflammation and open up the airways
  • pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program that combines exercise therapy, nutritional advice, and education
  • oxygen therapy

For colds, sinus infections, and respiratory infections, treatments include:

  • antibiotics, if bacteria caused the infection (These drugs won’t help with viral infections.)
  • nasal decongestants or steroid sprays to shrink swollen nasal passages
  • antihistamines to bring down inflammation in the nasal passages

For heart failure, treatments include:

  • medicines such as diuretics, vasodilators, beta-blockers, and ACE inhibitors
  • pacemaker, implantable cardioverter defibrillator, left ventricular assist device, and other implantable devices
  • coronary artery bypass grafting, valve surgery, and other procedures

For lung cancer, treatments include:

  • surgery to remove the tumor or lung
  • chemotherapy
  • radiation
  • immunotherapy
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Prevention

Can you stop it?

Some causes of heavy breathing, like obesity and sleep apnea, may be preventable. Other causes, like infections, may be harder for you to control.

Here are a few things you can do to prevent heavy breathing:

  • Lose weight if you’re overweight.
  • Wash your hands throughout the day and avoid anyone who’s sick, so you don’t catch an infection.
  • If you smoke, get help from your doctor to quit.
  • If you have allergies, see an ENT doctor or allergist for allergy shots.
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