Heavy Breathing: Common Causes and Treatments

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Kessler_190116Sometimes you might find that you are breathing more than normal—but what causes heavy breathing? Although certain situations, such as having performed physical activity  (i.e. jogging or jumping jacks) can cause temporary labored 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.

Heavy breathing during periods of inactivity suggests that you’re not getting enough oxygen, which could be caused by a number of conditions.

A stuffed nose or sinus infection from a cold, flu, or allergies could be the culprit, or it could be something more serious like chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD), pneumonia, or even a heart attack.

What Causes Heavy Breathing?

Heavy breathing can be caused by multiple factors and the severity ranges from mild to life threatening. If you can identify an acute stimulus—like quickly walking up the stairs or exposure to an allergen—take a rest or an antihistamine and wait for conditions to improve.

But if it’s an unknown cause and you can’t figure out how to stop heavy breathing, there is a checklist you can go through. Unfortunately, if it doesn’t feel like a cold or allergic reaction, you might have to get yourself to the doctor’s office for a diagnosis.

Take a look at these more prevalent culprits and see if they could be behind your rapid breathing:


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 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.


When you get hot and your body temperature rises, it consumes more oxygen. Because your muscles and tissue are sucking up the oxygen at a higher rate, it can lead to some shortness in breath.

Don’t worry; just sit down, relax, and perhaps put a cool, damp towel on your head. Within a few moments, you should regain a normal breath pattern. Of course, a fever could indicate a more severe health condition, so monitor the situation.

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.


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.


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.


In periods of intense anxiety—especially in those who suffer from clinical anxiety—noisy breathing and shortness of breath can be symptoms. Unfortunately, the heavy breathing can fuel further anxiety and make it feel like a struggle to get enough oxygen.

If possible, remove yourself from the situation and get to a quiet place where you can sit down and try to regulate breathing. If you have a history of cardiovascular trouble, you should call 911 or get to a hospital immediately.

Sleep Apnea and Snoring

If you wake up gasping for air or have been informed that you’re breathing heavily while sleeping, it may be from heavy snoring or sleep apnea. Sleep apnea is caused by blockages to the airways resulting from relaxed throat muscles. You end up gasping for air because you can’t take in oxygen.

Some other causes of heavy breathing while you sleep include nasal congestion, COPD, heart failure, and obesity.


Periods of enhanced physical exertion, like exercise, lead to increased demand for oxygen and shortness of breath. The harder your muscles are working, the more oxygen they need.

Your heart rate increases to pump oxygen-rich blood throughout your body, and the increased consumption can leave you breathing harder.

How to Treat Heavy Breathing

The treatment for heavy breathing will depend on what caused it. For example, in the case of exercise or increased physical exertion, taking a moment to sit down and rest should treat your labored breathing just fine.

For conditions like asthma and COPD, treatments will typically include corticosteroid inhalers to bring down inflammation and open up the airways. Colds, sinus infections, and allergies are typically treated with antihistamines or nasal decongestant sprays. Warm beverages can also help with mucus.

When shortness of breath is caused by heart failure, a number of medications can be used. These include options like vasodilators, beta-blockers, and ACE-inhibitors. Surgery may be required, as well.

How to Prevent Heavy Breathing 

  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wash your hands: Cold and flu viruses, and plenty of others, are passed through human surface contact. Wash your hands with warm water and soap when you arrive at a new destination or return home to reduce the chances of infection
  • Have a sleep assessment: A sleep assessment at a sleep clinic can help determine if you have sleep apnea. One of the most effective ways to treat shortness of breath while sleeping is with an oxygen mask. After the initial adjustment period, you likely won’t experience any discomfort and will notice a big difference in your quality of sleep.

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 diagnosis 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.

Also Read:

Article Sources (+)

“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.