Hard breathing when you’re not moving is a sign that your body has to work harder to get enough oxygen. This may be because less air is getting in through your nose and mouth, or too little oxygen is making its way into your bloodstream. Anything from a stuffed nose to a lung disorder, like chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), can make your breathing more labored.
Feeling as if it’s hard to catch your breath for a minute or two is not unusual, especially if you’ve been exercising or doing similar activities such as vigorously cleaning the house or carrying heavy bundles. That’s because when we exert ourselves, our muscles require more oxygen than they do when we are at rest. Our breathing rate momentarily quickens, and our heart beats faster to meet that need.
But if it’s hard to catch your breath for longer than a few minutes, it may be due to other causes. Oftentimes, those causes are easily fixable or explainable. You may, for example, simply need to loosen a too-tight belt or take it a little easier after spending a long time in bed.
In other cases, however, breathlessness — what doctors call dyspnea — may signal the presence of an underlying health problem such as a respiratory illness, heart disease, allergies, or obesity.
Signs and Symptoms
“Just feeling tired or feeling worn out or weak is not shortness of breath,” says pulmonologist Roger Maxfield, MD, a professor of medicine at Columbia University Medical Center in New York City. “And even if you feel like you can’t get enough air for a little bit after an activity, that’s okay. But if you’re short of breath at rest or you’re breathing as hard and deep as you can and you just don’t get enough air, that’s something that requires professional medical attention.”
In addition to feeling as if you cannot take in enough air, symptoms of dyspnea, according to the journal American Family Physician, can include the following:
- Anxiety or panic, which can make breathing even more difficult
- Rapid breathing
- Increased heart rate
Common causes of hard breathing
Respiratory system obstruction
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 burning feeling in the throat or chest
- feeling as though an object is scraping the throat or back of the mouth
- a rattling sensation in the chest or throat
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 cause inflammation in the sinuses, the air-filled spaces behind your nose and cheeks.
Other symptoms of a cold include:
- sore throat
- headache or body aches
- low-grade fever
- nasal discharge
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
Some medical conditions, such as gastroenteritis, can also cause dehydration. Taking certain medications might also cause dehydration as a side effect, such as some blood pressure drugs.
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.
Fever or overheating
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.
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. This rapid, heavy breathing is also called hyperventilating. You might also feel chest pain that’s easy to mistake for a heart attack.
Other symptoms of anxiety include:
- rapid heartbeat
- excessive sweating
- churning feeling in your
You can treat anxiety with relaxation exercises, therapy, and antianxiety drugs.
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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.
Lung conditions require comprehensive treatment and ongoing evaluation. If lung function reduces too much, people may need to take oxygen through a mask.
Asthma refers to inflammation of the bronchial tubes, which help the lungs inhale and exhale air.
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.
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:
- sleep apnea
- other health conditions
- heart problems
Weight loss, ideally with diet and exercise, is the best way to combat health issues related to obesity.
How is it treated?
Treatment for heavy breathing depends on what caused it.
For colds, sinus infections, and respiratory infections, treatments include:
- antihistamines to bring down inflammation in the nasal passages
- nasal decongestants or steroid sprays to shrink swollen nasal passages
- antibiotics, if bacteria caused the infection (These drugs won’t help with viral infections.)
For lung conditions like asthma and COPD, treatments include:
- oxygen therapy
- pulmonary rehabilitation, which is a program that combines exercise therapy, nutritional advice, and education
- medicines such as bronchodilators and corticosteroids to bring down inflammation and open up the airways
For heart failure, treatments include:
- coronary artery bypass grafting, valve surgery, and other procedures
- medicines such as diuretics, vasodilators, beta-blockers, and ACE inhibitors
- pacemaker, implantable cardioverter defibrillator, left ventricular assist device, and other implantable devices
Some causes of heavy breathing, like obesity and sleep apnea, may be preventable. Other causes, like infections, may be harder for you to control.
Here are a few things you can do to prevent heavy breathing:
- If you smoke, get help from your doctor to quit.
- If you have allergies, see an ENT doctor or allergist for allergy shots.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight.
- Wash your hands throughout the day and avoid anyone who’s sick, so you don’t catch an infection.