Heavy breathing can feel like suffocation, making each breath a struggle. For some people, heavy breathing feels like pressure on the chest, as if an elephant is sitting on them.
These sensations can be terrifying, and the panic they produce can make heavy breathing worse. But heavy breathing does not necessarily point to a serious health problem, so there is no need for panic.
A doctor can make a conclusive diagnosis, but here are the most common causes of heavy breathing.
1. Fever or overheating
When it is hot, the body’s metabolic demands increase, and it needs more oxygen. Heavy breathing may help gather more oxygen, but it also helps to release heat and can lower body temperature.
People with a fever may experience heavy breathing or shortness of breath, particularly when they are carrying out activities. This also happens in intense heat.
As long as the symptoms go away after a few deep breaths and a few minutes of relaxation, they are no cause for concern.
However, if heavy breathing gets worse, or is accompanied by symptoms such as dizziness and confusion, people should seek prompt medical care.
2. Illness or infection
A wide range of infections can make it harder to breathe, triggering heavy breathing.
In most cases, these infections are relatively minor. However, if symptoms are severe, accompanied by a high fever, or do not clear up within a few days, people should seek medical care.
Some infectious causes of heavy breathing include:
- sinus infections
- the common cold
- influenza (the flu)
Treatment for an illness may include receiving fluids into a vein, antibiotics, and hospitalization.
3. Cardiovascular health issues
Cardiovascular health issues are one of the leading causes of heavy breathing and shortness of breath, 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 breathing rapidly and heavily. This inability of the heart to keep up with the demands of the body is called heart failure. It may be due to one of the following causes:
- a blood clot in the lungs
- extremely high blood pressure
- a heart attack
- a heart infection
- severe anemia
- severely over or underactive thyroid
- shock from loss of fluids or blood
- abnormal heart rhythms, especially those with extremely low or high heart rates
- heart damage from alcohol or drug abuse
- obstructive sleep apnea
- severely high blood pressure in the lungs
- severe retention of fluid, such as in end-stage cirrhosis
- diseases where the heart muscle becomes infiltrated with abnormal substances, such as hemochromatosis, sarcoidosis, or amyloidosis
- arterio-venous malformations
People with a history of heart disease, or who have cardiovascular risk factors, such as smoking, obesity, high blood pressure, or high cholesterol, should seek emergency medical care if they have trouble breathing.
Cardiovascular problems demand comprehensive treatment that may include lifestyle changes, surgery, medication, and ongoing medical monitoring.
4. Lung health issues
The lungs and heart work together to supply the muscles and organs with blood. A problem with the lungs can also lead to heavy breathing.
People who develop heavy breathing that does not get better after a few days should see their doctor.
If the shortness of breath is severe, gets rapidly worse, or is accompanied by rapid heart rate, confusion, weakness, or other symptoms, seek emergency care.
Some common lung-related causes of breathing difficulties include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pulmonary embolism, a blood clot that blocks blood flow to the lungs
- lung cancer
- lung infection
As with cardiovascular health issues, lung health problems require comprehensive treatment and ongoing evaluation.
5. Respiratory system obstruction
When something interferes with the ability to take in air, breathing can become labored. For example, a choking incident can cause the airways to block up partially.
A foreign object inhaled into the lungs may also cause heavy breathing. If a foreign object in the airway is a possibility, people 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
- burning in the throat or chest
- feeling as if something is scraping the throat or back of the mouth
A doctor may need to remove the obstruction.
Dehydration can cause breathing changes as the body struggles to provide the cells with the energy they require.
People who do not drink enough water, who spend extended periods in the summer heat, or who drink dehydrating beverages, such as coffee, may experience dehydration. Some medications can also cause dehydration, as can a handful of medical conditions.
Try drinking a glass of water, breathing deeply, and avoiding heat for an hour or two. If symptoms do not improve, dehydration could be severe enough to warrant medical intervention.
Children and pregnant women showing signs of dehydration need immediate medical care.
People with anxiety may have trouble breathing during moments of intense anxiety. The problem tends to make itself worse. When anxiety causes irregular breathing, that irregular breathing can provoke more anxiety and more irregular breathing.
Anxiety-related breathing issues can feel like heavy breathing, shortness of breath, or as though it is impossible to get enough oxygen.
Some other symptoms that can occur alongside anxiety-related breathing issues include:
- rapid heart rate
- panic about health; people experiencing panic attacks sometimes think they are dying or having a heart attack.
- fainting, particularly if anxiety triggers hyperventilation
It is not always possible to tell anxiety apart from more serious cardiovascular conditions. People should try going to a calm, quiet place and taking ten slow, deep breaths into the stomach rather than the chest. If breathing does not return to normal, they should seek medical attention.
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 a panic attack.
Anxiety is not a medical emergency. Stress management techniques and psychotherapy can help.
Allergies, particularly respiratory allergies to things such as pollen and dust, can cause symptoms that include:
- heavy breathing
- burning in the lungs or throat
- watery eyes
- itchy skin
Except in the case of a severe anaphylactic reaction, which is a medical emergency, allergies do not cause rapid heart rate, loss of consciousness, or other serious symptoms.
People should try moving to a different location to avoid the allergen. If symptoms do not improve or they get worse, consult a doctor. If heavy breathing turns into difficulty breathing, go to an emergency room.
Asthma is inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which help the lungs inhale and exhale air. During an asthma attack, it may be difficult to breathe, and breathing may be heavy or labored. An asthma attack can include a variety of symptoms, such as burning, panic, and dizziness.
Asthma typically appears in childhood, but it can develop at any age. Stress, exertion, allergens, air pollution, and strong fragrances can trigger an attack.
People who know they have asthma should use an inhaler to stop the attack. Those who have not been diagnosed should seek immediate medical care for a suspected first asthma 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 is impossible to breathe, seek prompt medical attention.