Heavy breathing is normal after physical exertion. Sometimes, however, heavy breathing can make each breath a struggle to draw. Many different health conditions can cause this symptom. Treatment depends on the cause.
Heavy breathing can cause feelings of anxiety and panic. This can, in turn, make it even harder to draw a breath.
However, heavy breathing does not necessarily indicate a serious health problem.
Determining the cause of heavy breathing can help people feel calmer during breathlessness. It can also help people receive the most appropriate treatment to reduce the risk of future episodes of heavy breathing.
In this article, we look at the most common causes of heavy breathing and how to manage them.
When the body becomes too hot, its metabolism becomes more demanding and requires more oxygen. Heavy breathing may help the body take in more oxygen. It also helps a person release heat and bring their body temperature down.
People with a fever may experience heavy breathing or shortness of breath, particularly when they are carrying out strenuous activities. This also happens in intensely hot weather.
As long as the symptoms resolve after a few deep breaths and a few minutes of relaxation or time in the shade, they are usually no cause for concern.
However, if heavy breathing gets worse, or symptoms such as dizziness and confusion also occur, a person should seek prompt medical care.
Several infections can make breathing hard and may trigger episodes of breathlessness and panting.
Many of these infections are relatively minor. However, if symptoms are severe, occur alongside a high fever, or do not resolve within a few days, it is important to seek a consultation with a doctor.
Some infectious causes of heavy breathing include:
Some of these infections, such as the common cold, will resolve without treatment. Others are treatable by intravenous fluids, taking a course of antibiotics, or hospitalization.
If a blockage in the nose due to a sinus infection is responsible for heavy breathing, a person may be able to use decongestant medications, nasal sprays, or a flushing device such as a neti pot to clear their nose.
This can make breathing easier while the immune system works to fights off the infection.
Cardiovascular health issues are among the leading causes of heavy breathing, particularly when symptoms last for several days.
When the heart cannot pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the muscles and organs, the body reacts by triggering rapid and heavy breathing to boost oxygen intake.
Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot meet the oxygen demands of the rest of the body.
The following factors and underlying conditions can contribute to heart failure:
- a blood clot in the lungs
- extremely high blood pressure
- a heart attack
- a heart infection
- severe anemia
- severely over or underactive thyroid
- shock due to loss of fluids or blood
- abnormal heart rhythms, especially those that occur alongside high heart rates
- heart damage due to alcohol or drug use
- obstructive sleep apnea
- extremely high blood pressure in the arteries that feed the lungs
- severe retention of fluid, such as during end stage liver scarring
- conditions in which abnormal substances infiltrate the heart muscle, such as hemochromatosis, sarcoidosis, or amyloidosis
- arteriovenous malformations
People with a history of heart disease should seek emergency medical care if they experience prolonged heavy breathing. Those who have cardiovascular risk factors — such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol — should also seek medical consultation.
People with cardiovascular health issues will need comprehensive treatment that may include making lifestyle changes, undergoing surgery, taking medication, and ongoing medical monitoring.
The lungs and heart work together to supply the muscles and organs with oxygen-rich blood. For this reason, a problem with the lungs can also lead to heavy breathing.
People who develop heavy breathing that does not improve after several days should seek an appointment with a healthcare professional.
If the shortness of breath is severe and gets progressively worse within a short time span, seek emergency care. Also seek medical care if symptoms such as a rapid heart rate, confusion, and weakness accompany the breathlessness.
Some common lung-related causes of breathing difficulties include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the lungs
- lung cancer
- lung infection
Lung conditions require comprehensive treatment and ongoing evaluation. If lung function reduces too much, people may need to take oxygen through a mask.
Surgery may be necessary for people with an obstruction or growth in the lung. Some medications are also available to widen the airways, improve oxygen uptake, and treat lung infections.
When an obstruction interferes with a person’s ability to take in air, breathing can become labored. For example, a choking incident can cause a partial blockage of the airways.
If a person inhales a foreign object into the lungs, this can also lead to heavy breathing. If a person suspects that a foreign object is blocking their airways, they should seek emergency medical care — even if they are still able to breathe.
Other symptoms that may accompany a respiratory system obstruction include:
- a rattling sensation in the chest or throat
- a burning feeling in the throat or chest
- feeling as though an object is scraping the throat or back of the mouth
A healthcare professional may need to remove the obstruction.
Dehydration can cause breathing changes. Without enough fluids, the body cannot provide cells with enough energy.
People may experience dehydration if they:
- do not drink enough water
- spend extended periods of time in high temperatures
- drink a lot of dehydrating beverages, such as coffee and alcohol
People experiencing dehydration should try to drink a glass of water, breathe deeply, and avoid extreme heat for an hour or two. If symptoms do not improve, the dehydration could be severe enough to warrant medical intervention.
Children and pregnant women who show signs of dehydration require immediate medical attention.
Anxiety can also cause a person to have trouble breathing. The problem tends to make itself worse, as people may then worry about the source of the heavy breathing. This can fuel a cycle of panic symptoms and breathlessness.
Some other symptoms that can occur alongside anxiety-related breathing issues include:
- rapid heart rate
- panic about health or a fear of imminent death
- fainting, particularly if anxiety triggers hyperventilation
People who feel an anxiety attack coming on should try going to a calm, quiet location and taking 10 slow, deep breaths into the stomach (rather than the chest). If breathing does not return to normal after this, they should seek medical attention.
It is not always possible to tell anxiety from more serious cardiovascular conditions. People who have a history of cardiovascular symptoms or some heart attack risk factors should see their doctor, even if they think the symptoms are due to an anxiety attack.
Anxiety alone is not a medical emergency. Stress management techniques and psychotherapy can help. Medications are also available for ongoing anxiety disorders.
Allergies, particularly respiratory allergies to substances such as pollen and dust, can cause symptoms that include:
- heavy breathing
- a burning feeling in the lungs or throat
- watery eyes
- itchy skin
For minor allergic reactions, people should try moving to a different location to avoid the allergen. If symptoms do not improve, or if they get worse, they should seek consultation with a doctor.
If heavy breathing turns into difficulties drawing a breath at all, a person should seek immediate medical attention.
If the allergic reaction is severe (anaphylaxis), it can cause rapid heart rate, loss of consciousness, or other severe symptoms. Anaphylaxis is a medical emergency.
During an asthma attack, breathing may become heavy or labored. An asthma attack can include a variety of other symptoms, such as a burning sensation in the chest, panic, and dizziness.
Asthma typically develops in childhood, but it can occur at any age. Stress, exertion, allergens, air pollution, and exposure to strong fragrances can trigger an attack.
People who know that they have asthma should use an inhaler to stop or prevent an attack. Those who have not received a diagnosis of asthma should seek immediate medical care at the first signs of an attack.
During exercise, the muscles and organs need more oxygen from the body’s red blood cells. This requires the heart to pump more blood and the lungs to supply more oxygen, resulting in a rapid heartbeat and heavier breathing.
Even mild exertion can cause heavy breathing in people who do not regularly exercise. If shortness of breath persists for 10 minutes or longer after exercise, or if it becomes impossible to breathe, a person should seek immediate medical attention.
However, heavy breathing after physical exertion is natural and means that enough oxygen is circulating around the body.