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A normal breathing rate is 8–16 breaths per minute at rest for adults. However, in infants, a breathing rate of around 44 breaths per minute is considered normal.
Rapid and shallow breathing is a health issue called tachypnea. In this condition, the person suffers from hyperventilation and may take more breaths per minute than normal.
An adult is evaluated to have tachypnea if their respiratory rate is more than 20 breaths/minute. Respiratory rate can be assessed at home by counting your breaths for 30 seconds. It is important to be careful that you do not alter your respiratory rate or pattern while counting your breaths. The number of breaths observed is then multiplied by 2 to calculate the breaths/minute. (1)
To treat tachypnea, you first need to know what is causing it. This article will discuss some common causes of tachypnea.
Causes of Tachypnea
The following conditions can lead to rapid, shallow breathing.
Asthma is a pretty common respiratory disorder and is caused by chronic inflammation of the lungs, which causes your airway or respiratory tract to become narrow. This obviously results in difficulty breathing and other respiratory symptoms that include:
- Rapid, shallow breathing
- Chest pain
- Chest tightness
- Feeling pressure on the chest
When a person experiences an asthma attack, they undergo rapid and shallow breathing, making asthma one of the most common causes of tachypnea. (2) It is extremely important to treat asthma on time. If left untreated, it can cause a lot of health issues that are incredibly serious.
There is a treatment regimen for asthma that depends on the person and their case. The severity of asthma and the frequency of asthmatic attacks play a major role in determining the course of treatments.
The most dangerous and potentially fatal form of asthma is status asthmaticus, which is a medical emergency. It causes serious signs and symptoms such as hypoxemia (abnormally low level of oxygen in the blood), hypercarbia (increase in carbon dioxide in the blood), and secondary respiratory failure.
All patients who suffer from bronchial asthma are at risk of having an acute episode, which may be only slightly responsive to standard treatment irrespective of disease severity and observational/physical symptoms
If not identified and controlled suitably, asthma increases the risk of acute ventilatory failure and even death. (3)
Another famous cause of tachypnea is pneumonia. It is also a respiratory disorder where there is inflammation of the lungs and can be a result of an infection caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi.
According to World Health Organization (WHO), pneumonia is largely a cough that causes difficulty in breathing and tachypnea. Furthermore, the respiratory rate for this problem is described as:
- >60 breaths/minute in infants aged 0–2 months
- >50 breaths/minute in infants aged 2–12 months
- >40 breaths/minute in children aged 1–5 years
- >20 breaths/minute in children >5 years of age (4)
Contrary to popular belief, both adults and children are prone to suffer from pneumonia. Some other commonly observed symptoms of pneumonia include:
- Loss of appetite
In the elderly, pneumonia can be deadly. Even in infants, pneumonia can have life-threatening effects. It is fatal for those who have a compromised immune system as well. (5)
If left untreated, experts say patients with pneumonia can die from respiratory failures, sepsis, lung abscess, and acute respiratory distress syndrome (ARDS).
Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD) is a group of respiratory issues or conditions that lead to narrowing of the airway and hence trouble breathing.
Healthcare professionals share that COPD includes chronic bronchitis, which is the inflammation of large bronchioles, and emphysema, which is damage to the alveoli in the lungs. It develops gradually over the years and is generally a result of cigarette smoking.
Tachypnea is a common symptom of COPD. It can occur due to plenty of underlying issues such as chronic bronchitis or emphysema. The former causes inflammation of the airway, while the latter contributes to air sac or alveolar destruction in the lungs. Experts share that patients with COPD suffer from high blood pressure in the lung arteries.
In those who suffer from COPD, the tachypnea is due to either lack of oxygen or increased carbon dioxide levels.
Choking can cause tachypnea. This is more common in infants but occurs in adults too. Choking causes partial or complete blockage of the respiratory tract, which may further cause tachypnea. (8)
There are two different types of choking, which are partial and complete obstruction of the airway, which may be due to a foreign body such as food, candies, keys, or small toys. (9)
5. Anxiety and stress
Anxiety and stress can cause tachypnea. When a person is anxious or panics, they tend to breathe in the upper part of the lungs or chest, which causes tachypnea.
Symptoms of an anxiety attack can include: (10)
- Numbness in the limbs
- Lump in the throat
- Increased heart rate
- Chest tightness
Generally, when people who suffer from tachypnea wake up, they gasp for air, which can create a fear of suffering from a breathing problem while sleeping.
Patients, therefore, are advised to comfort themselves by knowing that they are safe and that tachypnea isn’t something to be so concerned about. This is because it doesn’t disrupt your body functions or put you in any kind of danger.
The best thing to do in panic attacks or stress-induced tachypnea is to reassure yourself that everything is okay.
6. Pulmonary embolism
Pulmonary embolism is a medical condition where there is a blood clot in the blood vessels of the lungs causing a blockage. This leads to shallow and rapid breathing.
Pulmonary embolism is a very serious life-threatening issue that requires immediate medical attention. Symptoms of pulmonary embolism include: (11)
- Chest pain
- Irregular heart rate
- Shortness of breath
Bronchiolitis is a common cause of tachypnea in children. It causes difficulty breathing and is caused by a viral infection of the lungs.
In this condition, there is swelling in the affected lung, which makes the respiratory tract narrow and results in breathing issues, which leads to tachypnea. (12)
Common symptoms of bronchiolitis include:
- Flaring up of the nostrils
8. Heart failure
Congestive heart failure (CHF) is also a possible cause of tachypnea and can progress to worsening heart failure if not managed on time. When tachypnea is due to heart issues, the EKG will show abnormal heart rhythms. (1)
9. Transient tachypnea of the newborn
Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN) is a benign condition that can occur in infants soon after birth. It is due to a delay in the removal of fetal lung fluid after birth, which further causes ineffective gas exchange, leading to respiratory distress and tachypnea. (13)
TTN is generally observed in babies who are born near or at term. Transient means it is short-lived and continues for less than 24 hours.
Most-Asked Questions About Tachypnea
How does normal breathing impact health?
Breathing plays an important role in your health. How you breathe affects a lot of your bodily functions. When you control your breathing, you help your body remarkably.
Some of the processes affected by your breathing process include: (14)
- Gene expression
- Inflammatory response
- Brain maintenance
- Blood pressure
- Energy levels
- Perception of pain
- Heart rate
- Emotional health response to stress
- Mental wellness
These are just some of the important functions affected by breathing. Thus, rapid, shallow breathing would have a negative impact on your health, and thereby, you need to pay attention to your breathing.
Do diabetics experience rapid and shallow breathing?
Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA) is a common complication caused by diabetes mellitus. It is presented by various serious health issues, one of them being Kussmaul breathing, which is characterized by tachypnea and increased depth of breath. (15)
What does tachypnea feel like?
Tachypnea is characterized by rapid and shallow breathing. It can be followed by other symptoms that include: (1)
- Feeling like you’re not getting enough air
- Shortness of breath
- Bluing of the fingers and lips
- Metabolic imbalance
How is tachypnea different from dyspnea?
Tachypnea is rapid and shallow breathing caused by an underlying medical condition. Dyspnea, on the other hand, is characterized by shortness of breath, which can happen with a normal, high, or low breathing rate. (1)(16)
What medicines can cause tachypnea?
Tachypnea can occur as a side effect of various medications such as aspirin, CNS stimulants, and marijuana.
Is tachypnea an emergency situation?
Tachypnea does not necessarily require emergency medical care, but medical attention is required (1) if you experience symptoms such as:
- Loss of consciousness
- Blue-colored lips, fingers, gums, or nails
- Sinking of the area around the eyes
- Feeling of chest pulling with each breath
What to remember while traveling with tachypnea?
Before you decide to travel, especially by air, remember that proper medical assessment is required by a chest physician in cases of COPD and asthma. An evaluation by a psychiatrist is also needed if the cause of your tachypnea is stress.
Breathing is important to sustain life in all living beings. Therefore, tachypnea can be a scary thing to go through, but you have to remember that it does not always point toward a serious problem.
It is, however, advised not to treat tachypnea at home by yourself. Instead, seek medical assistance for management as treatment depends upon the underlying cause.