It isn’t much of a revelation to say that breathing is good for you. However, sometimes you might find that you are breathing more than normal—but what causes heavy breathing?
Also known as tachypnea, rapid breathing is typically characterized as taking more than 20 breaths per minute. Although certain situations, such as having performed physical activity (i.e. jogging or jumping jacks) can cause temporary spikes in breathing, this is normal and expected.
It is when you become out of breath despite having not engaged in stimulating activities that can indicate a problem.
Common Causes of Heavy Breathing
There are countless causes of rapid breathing, but some are much more common than others. Take a look at these more prevalent culprits and see if they could be behind your rapid breathing:
- Allergies: An allergy is when your body gets irritated by a normally benign material. In the case of allergens that can be inhaled such as pet dander, pollen, or dust, the irritation will be focused in the lungs or bronchial tubes. This causes swelling and possibly inflammation that can lead to heavy breathing. These types of allergies often come with other symptoms like wheezing, watery or reddening eyes, or nasal irritation as well.
- Asthma: Asthma is a condition where your airways become especially sensitive and prone to overreaction, similar to an allergy. When provoked, the airway will narrow and produce excess mucus that impairs the ability to breathe properly. Asthma triggers are not always the same among people with the condition but can include airborne allergens, temperature, stress, or certain foods or drinks. Asthma attacks are usually accompanied by tightness in the chest and a whistling or wheezing sound when exhaling.
- Cardiovascular ailment: The heart and lungs work together to get blood oxygenated and send out across your body. Consequently, issues in one system can sometimes affect the other. If your heart is pumping too quickly then it is demanding more oxygen from the lungs and in turn, the lungs will warrant a higher level of breathing. Additionally, scarring or damage to the heart can make it struggle and work harder to accomplish its duties, also contributing to rapid breathing. Countless diseases and genetic conditions can result in heart troubles capable of affecting your breathing, but in general you should notice a change in your heart rate that coincides with the periods of heavy breathing.
- Smoking: The interior of the lungs are coated with tiny hairs called “villi” that serve as a filtration mechanism to remove any debris or phlegm that enters as part of respiration. The heat and chemicals contained within smoke are strong enough to burn off the villi and deprive your lungs of their important services. The phlegm will continue to build up and absorb chemicals and debris, eventually forming a sort of tar on the inside of the lungs. This results in the narrowing of the lung’s airways and results in wheezing, heavy, or rapid breathing as your body tries to get adequate air through a smaller passage.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease: COPD refers to a set of chronic inflammatory conditions that affect the lungs and airways. The conditions are usually the result of long-term exposure to irritating particulates (smoking is the most common cause) and the two most prevalent forms of COPD are emphysema and chronic bronchitis. Emphysema is when the air sacs (alveoli) at the ends of the air passages are destroyed and bronchitis is an inflammation of the lining of the bronchial tubes that carry air from the alveoli to the lungs. Chronic bronchitis’s main symptoms are a daily cough and sputum production, but other COPD symptoms include shortness of breath, wheezing, waking up with excess mucus in the lungs, and frequent respiratory infections.
- Obesity: The heart must pump blood over your entire body and the more body you have, the harder this is. As mentioned above, if the heart has to pump faster, then it needs the lungs to pull extra duty to keep up, which results in heavy breathing. Additionally, obese individuals tend to have their body weight carried in the mid-drift area, placing extra pressure on the lungs.
Natural Treatments for Heavy Breathing
As you might imagine, given the wide variety of causes, there is no one set treatment for heavy breathing. Having said that, there are some common generalities that can be made.
- Avoid triggers: A good place to start would be to take steps to avoid triggers. Most breathing issues have some sort of trigger whether they are physical exertion or allergens in the air. By paying attention to your body and noting what triggers periods of heavy breathing, you can take steps to reduce your exposure. In cases where exposure is inevitable, you can instead opt for protections. For instance, if you have seasonal allergies but have to go outside you can try wearing a face mask.
- Treat allergies: Allergies and asthma are also commonly treated with medications. Allergies call for antihistamines that can minimize the immune response and ease any inflammation while asthma inhalers deliver steroids that can clear the airway. Steroids and bronchodilators are also used to treat COPD and in some cases oxygen therapy or pulmonary rehabilitation therapy can be prescribed by your doctor.
- Lifestyle adjustments: Lifestyle adjustments can be used to ease symptoms or to improve lung strength. For obese or overweight individuals, taking steps to lose even a little bit of weight can have an impressive effect on your pulmonary health. It should also go without saying that, if you smoke, quitting is highly advisable since little progress in your lung health can be made while regularly inhaling the heated mixture of ash and chemicals.
When to See Your Doctor
Since heavy breathing can have so many possible causes—some of which can cause overlapping symptoms—it is best to get a firm diagnoses from your doctor. Beyond that, most common causes of heavy breathing do not usually require emergency attention. The primary exception to this is if your breathing difficulties suddenly worsen or you are having an asthma attack that is not being relieved by use of the inhaler. In these instances you should seek medical attention at the earliest convenience.
Sources for Today’s Article:
“Heavy Breathing,” MD-Health.com; http://www.md-health.com/Heavy-Breathing.html, last accessed January 19, 2016.
“COPD,” Mayo Clinic web site, July 21, 2015; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/copd/basics/symptoms/con-20032017.
“Asthma,” Mayo Clinic web site, October 17, 2015; http://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/asthma/basics/symptoms/con-20026992.
Wickman, G., “What Are the Causes of Heavy Breathing?” What Are the Causes of Heavy Breathing?” Health Guidance web site; http://www.healthguidance.org/entry/15452/1/What-Are-the-Causes-of-Heavy-Breathing.html, , last accessed January 19, 2016.