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What Causes Heavy Breathing?

By Jonathan VanDam ; Updated August 14, 2017

The respiratory system consists of the lungs, airways and muscles that assist in breathing. This system of organs and tissues controls how an individual inhales oxygen and exhales carbon dioxide. When heavy breathing occurs, it usually manifests from overexertion or as a symptom of a health problem such as asthma. Those who experience heavy breathing may have heaviness in the chest and bouts of breathlessness. A healthcare provider may assist in diagnosing and treating the cause of heavy breathing.


Anxiety commonly involves feelings of apprehension and nervousness. However, for some people, anxiety can become disabling and cause excessive fear. The National Institute of Mental Health notes that anxiety disorders affect approximately 40 million Americans aged 18 years and older in a given year. Those with anxiety disorders may experience rapid breathing, sweating, trembling, fatigue and increased heart rate. Hyperventilation is a common sign of severe anxiety that causes a decreased amount of oxygen in the blood and rapid or deep breathing.


Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. The condition involves swelling and inflammation of the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs. Those with asthma experience breathing problems because of narrowed airways that cause the lungs to receive less air. Approximately 20 million people in the U.S. have asthma, and nearly 6 million of these people are children, according to the National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. During an asthma flare-up, symptoms may range from minor to severe. The most common symptoms of asthma include wheezing and heavy breathing, shortness of breath, chest tightness and coughing.


Emphysema is a chronic and progressive disorder of the lungs. The disorder is a type of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease that causes damage to the air sacs in the lungs and the surrounding tissues. Damage to the lung's air sacs, otherwise known as the alveoli, causes the lungs to transfer less oxygen to the bloodstream, resulting in breathing problems. Common causes of emphysema are protein deficiency and cigarette smoking. More than 4000 chemicals exist in tobacco smoke, and these chemicals progressively destroy the body’s airways, air sacs and supporting elastic fibers, notes Symptoms of emphysema include heavy breathing, shortness of breath, wheezing, fatigue, chest tightness and chronic coughing. In many cases, emphysema is preventable with lifestyle changes.

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