Heavy Breathing: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment, and More

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.

Following are some possible causes for heavy breathing.

Colds and sinus problems

Viruses and bacteria can clog your nasal passages, making it harder to draw enough oxygen into your airways. Colds increase the amount of mucus your body produces. Sinus infections[1] cause inflammation in the sinuses, the air-filled spaces behind your nose and cheeks.

Other symptoms of a cold include:

  • nasal discharge
  • sneezing
  • cough
  • sore throat
  • headache or body aches
  • low-grade fever

Other symptoms of a sinus infection include:

  • nasal discharge[2] that may be green
  • pain or tenderness in your face
  • headaches
  • coughing
  • fever
  • fatigue
  • bad breath

Infections caused by viruses will clear up on their own over time. Sinus infections caused by bacteria are treated with antibiotics.


Allergies are an overreaction by your immune system to normally harmless substances in your environment, like pollen, grass, or 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.[3] An allergic reaction causes symptoms like these:

  • sneezing
  • stuffed and runny nose
  • watery eyes
  • hives, rash
  • nausea
  • diarrhea

The most serious kind of allergic reaction is called anaphylaxis[4]. It can cause your throat and mouth to swell up, making it hard to breathe.


Asthma is a chronic condition in which the airways in your lungs become inflamed. This swelling makes it harder for air to get into your lungs.

Other symptoms include:

  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • shortness of breath
  • tight feeling in your chest

You can take asthma medicines daily or during attacks to open up your airways and ease your breathing.

Respiratory infections

Pneumonia[5], bronchitis, and tuberculosis[6] are lung infections caused by bacteria or viruses. Other symptoms of these infections include:

  • cough that may bring up clear or blood-tinged mucus
  • fever
  • chills
  • fatigue
  • headache
  • chest discomfort
  • appetite loss

Bacterial infections are treated with antibiotics. Viruses often clear up on their own in a week or two.


Sometimes the cause of labored breathing isn’t physical but psychological. When you’re anxious, your body tenses up and you start to breathe faster, among other effects.[7] This rapid, heavy breathing is also called hyperventilating[8]. You might also feel chest pain that’s easy to mistake for a heart attack.

Other symptoms of anxiety include:

  • rapid heartbeat
  • dizziness
  • excessive sweating
  • shaking
  • churning feeling in your stomach
  • diarrhea

You can treat anxiety with relaxation exercises, therapy, and antianxiety drugs.


Carrying around a lot of extra weight puts pressure on your lungs, which have to work harder to expand. If you have a BMI of 30 or higher, the definition of obesity, you might have more trouble breathing, especially when you exercise.

Obesity can also lead to:

  • heart problems
  • diabetes[9]
  • sleep apnea
  • other health conditions

Weight loss, ideally with diet and exercise, is the best way to combat health issues related to obesity.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is a group of lung diseases, including chronic bronchitis[10], emphysema[11], and asthma[12], that make it harder to breathe. It’s often caused by smoking-related lung damage.

Symptoms of COPD include:

  • chronic cough
  • shortness of breath
  • fatigue
  • increased mucus production
  • wheezing

Medicines, pulmonary rehabilitation, and supplemental oxygen can help you manage these symptoms.

Heart failure

You can get heart failure[13] when a condition like coronary artery disease or a heart attack damages your heart to the point where it can’t effectively pump blood out to your body. Shortness of breath is caused by blood backing up in the blood vessels and fluid leaking into your lungs.

Other symptoms of heart failure include:

  • chest pain
  • fast heartbeat (palpitations)
  • cough
  • dizziness
  • swelling in your legs or ankles
  • rapid weight gain

Medicines, implantable devices, and surgery are all treatments for heart failure.

Lung cancer

Trouble breathing and shortness of breath can be symptoms of lung cancer[14], especially in the late stages of the disease.

Other symptoms include:

  • coughing
  • chest pain
  • increased phlegm production
  • hoarse voice
  • coughing up blood

How treatable the cancer is depends on its stage, which is determined by the size of the tumor and whether it has spread.


  1. ^ Sinus infections (www.healthline.com)
  2. ^ nasal discharge (www.healthline.com)
  3. ^ If you’re unfamiliar with the symptoms of an allergy, you may think you’re coming down with a cold. (www.healthline.com)
  4. ^ anaphylaxis (www.healthline.com)
  5. ^ Pneumonia (www.healthline.com)
  6. ^ tuberculosis (www.healthline.com)
  7. ^ When you’re anxious, your body tenses up and you start to breathe faster, among other effects. (www.healthline.com)
  8. ^ hyperventilating (www.healthline.com)
  9. ^ diabetes (www.healthline.com)
  10. ^ chronic bronchitis (www.healthline.com)
  11. ^ emphysema (www.healthline.com)
  12. ^ asthma (www.healthline.com)
  13. ^ heart failure (www.healthline.com)
  14. ^ lung cancer (www.healthline.com)

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