When is heavy breathing benign and when is it serious? Are some people just “naturally” heavy breathers – or, does this necessarily signal a problem?

“Heavy breathing is typically identified by an elevated rate of respiration at rest,” says Angel Coz, MD, FCCP, board certified pulmonologist, Associate Professor of Medicine, University of Kentucky, Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center.

“It usually requires investigation by a medical professional, as it can be caused by several entities, some of which can be cause for concern,” continues Dr. Coz.

Causes of Heavy Breathing at Rest

“Heart problems can initially present as heavy breathing,” says Dr. Coz. “Associated symptoms can include chest pain or tightness, lightheadedness, palpitations or nausea.

“Lung disease including airway diseases (asthma and emphysema), restrictive diseases (pulmonary fibrosis) and pulmonary vascular diseases (pulmonary hypertension) produce increased work of breathing to meet the tissue demands for oxygen.

“Obesity increases the demand for oxygen leading to additional work by the heart and lungs to meet those demands.

“Anemia, especially those with severe cases, can experience heavy breathing when exercising.” Anemia, which is reduced red blood cell count, has many possible causes.

Another cause to consider is sinus problems. For example, a tumor in the nose can block the nasal passages, forcing heavier breathing.

However, there will likely be additional symptoms such as pain, nosebleeds, a lump, reduced sense of smell, excessive watering of one eye and/or nasal discharge.

When should someone see a doctor?

Dr. Coz explains, “It is recommended that patients seek medical attention when heavy breathing is noticed, as it can indicate a severe problem that could potentially be intervened upon if detected early.

“Signs that medical help needs to be sought immediately include: chest pain, fainting, fever, chills and lethargy.”

Dr. Coz is a pulmonary and critical care specialist at the Lexington Veterans Affairs Medical Center. He has a special interest in sepsis resuscitation and medical education. 
Lorra Garrick has been covering medical, fitness and cybersecurity topics for many years, having written thousands of articles for print magazines and websites, including as a ghostwriter. She’s also a former ACE-certified personal trainer.  


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