You may experience heavy breathing temporarily due to an illness or infection. But other health conditions can cause this symptom to be chronic. Treatment depends on the cause.
You may 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 the causes of heavy breathing and how to treat them.
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.
Certain health conditions may affect your breathing at different parts of this process.
The following include possible causes for heavy breathing.
Colds and sinus infections
Colds and sinus infections typically do not cause heavy breathing in people without other health conditions. But if you have an underlying lung condition, you may experience labored breathing and other symptoms.
Viruses and bacteria can clog your nasal passages, making it harder to draw enough oxygen into your airways. Colds can increase the amount of mucus your body produces. Sinus infections typically cause inflammation in the sinuses, the air-filled spaces behind your nose and cheeks.
Some of these infections can progress into respiratory tract infections, like pneumonia, which may cause heavy breathing.
Other symptoms of a cold can include:
Other symptoms of a sinus infection include:
- nasal discharge that may be green
- pain or tenderness in your face
- bad breath
Infections caused by viruses typically clear up on their own over time. Sinus infections caused by bacteria may require treatment with antibiotics.
Allergies are an overreaction by your immune system to normally harmless substances in your environment. This can include irritants like:
- 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 can cause symptoms that include:
The most serious kind of reaction is called anaphylaxis. It can cause your throat and mouth to swell up, making breathing hard.
Anaphylaxis is an emergency
Anaphylaxis can cause a series of symptoms that include:
- low pulse
- anaphylactic shock
This can be fatal if it isn’t treated immediately. Emergency treatment can include epinephrine.
Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways in your lungs become inflamed. This swelling makes it harder for air to get out of your lungs.
Other symptoms can include:
You can take asthma medication daily or during attacks to open your airways and ease your breathing.
- cough that may bring up clear or blood-tinged mucus
- chest discomfort
- appetite loss
Doctors may treat bacterial infections with antibiotics. Viruses often clear up on their own in a week or two.
When you’re anxious, your body may tense up and you may start to breathe faster. 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 can include:
You can treat anxiety with relaxation exercises, therapy, and anti-anxiety drugs.
Excess weight can put pressure on your lungs, which then have to work harder to expand. If you have obesity, you might have more trouble breathing, especially when you exercise. Sometimes, other health conditions can cause obesity.
Obesity may also lead to:
Weight management, ideally with diet and exercise, is the best way to combat health issues related to obesity.
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
Symptoms of COPD include:
COPD treatment can help you manage these symptoms. This may include:
- pulmonary rehabilitation
- supplemental oxygen
Shortness of breath can happen when the blood backs up in the blood vessels and fluid leaks into your lungs.
Other symptoms of heart failure can include:
- chest pain
- rapid heartbeat (palpitations)
- swelling in your legs or ankles
- rapid weight gain
Treatment for heart failure can depend on the type and severity of heart failure. It may include:
- implantable devices
Trouble breathing and shortness of breath can be symptoms of lung cancer, especially in the later stages of the disease.
Other symptoms can include:
Treatment for lung cancer can depend on a few factors, including:
- cancer stage
- cancer spread, or metastasis
- tumor size and location
You might not notice heavy breathing if it happens while you’re asleep. Your bed partner might alert you that you’re making a lot of noise when you breathe.
Heavy breathing at night may occur due to obstructive sleep apnea. If you have 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 may have sleep apnea include:
- loud snoring
- morning headaches
- sleepiness during the day
- trouble remembering or concentrating
Treatment for sleep apnea typically includes continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) therapy. It uses a device consisting of a mask that blows air into your airway while you sleep. You can also try an oral device to hold your jaw in the correct position at night.
Other causes of heavy breathing while you sleep can include:
- nasal congestion from a cold or respiratory infection
- heart failure
Speak with a doctor if your breathing becomes heavy and doesn’t go away within a week or two.
Certain symptoms may indicate a medical emergency that requires urgent medical care. These symptoms can include:
- trouble catching your breath
- chest pain or tightness
- blood in your phlegm
- swelling of your mouth or tightness in your throat
Treatment for heavy breathing depends on what caused it.
For lung conditions like asthma and COPD, treatments can include:
- medications, such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids, to bring down inflammation and open up the airways
- pulmonary rehabilitation, a program that combines exercise therapy, nutritional advice, and education
- oxygen therapy
- antibiotics, if bacteria caused the infection
- nasal decongestants or steroid sprays to shrink swollen nasal passages
- antihistamines to bring down inflammation in the nasal passages
For heart failure, treatments can include:
- medications, such as diuretics, vasodilators, beta-blockers, and ACE inhibitors
- implantable devices, such as a pacemaker, implantable cardioverter defibrillator, left ventricular assist device, and other implantable devices
- medical procedures, including coronary artery bypass grafting, valve surgery, and other procedures
For lung cancer, treatments include:
- surgery to remove the tumor or lung
You may be able to prevent some causes of heavy breathing, like sleep apnea. Other causes, like infections, may be harder to avoid.
You may be able to prevent some causes of heavy breathing with certain lifestyle practices. These can include: