Healthy Living

Rapid Shallow Breathing (Tachypnea): Causes and Treatments

Rapid Shallow Breathing (Tachypnea): Causes and Treatments

What is rapid shallow breathing?

Rapid, shallow breathing, also medically called as tachypnea, is a term used to describe a breathing that is too fast, particularly when people have it due to a lung disease or other health conditions. Sometimes, rapid, shallow breathing and hyperventilation are interchangeably used. Hyperventilation happens when a person takes rapid deep breaths due to lung problems or due to an anxiety or panic attack. 

Breathing problems are often caused by a carbon dioxide buildup in the lungs. When the lungs are not able to remove excess carbon dioxide, respiratory acidosis happens. Having an excessive carbon dioxide in the body causes a drop in the pH of blood and other body fluids, making them very acidic. Due to the blood's acidity, the brain sends a signal to the respiratory system to get going and stabilize the blood's pH level. This carbon dioxide buildup can result in a respiratory infection or heart failure

Causes

On an average, an individual usually takes around 12-20 breaths per minute. Tachypnea or rapid, shallow breathing happens when people take more breaths within a minute. If you experience this symptom, consult a doctor to have a proper diagnosis and treatment. 

Tachypnea can be due to physiological and pathological causes. Some of its causes may include:

  • Asthma - One of the main symptoms of an asthma attack is hyperventilation. Asthma is regarded as a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. It is said to be one of the common causes of rapid, shallow breathing in children.
  • Anxiety or Panic Attacks - Anxiety is a mental disorder that can also lead to panic attacks. It has symptoms, such as tachypnea, heart palpitations, fast heart rate, numbness or tingling of the hands and feet, and shakiness. 
  • Carbon Monoxide Poisoning - Carbon monoxide is an odorless and tasteless gas, which can make people unwell if they breathe too much of it. The main symptoms of carbon monoxide poisoning are tachypnea, dizziness, headache, chest pain, and nausea
  • Diabetic KetoacidosisThis is a life-threatening condition that happens to people who have diabetes. This condition occurs when the body produces elevated levels of ketones due to low insulin levels. One of the main symptoms of this condition is rapid breathing with a particular smell. Other symptoms may include fatigue, abdominal pain, vomiting, and frequent urination
  • Heart Failure - This progressive condition happens when the heart is unable to appropriately pump blood throughout the body. When not enough blood is pumped to meet the body's oxygen requirement, people start to breathe rapidly to make up for the lack of oxygen. Other symptoms of heart failure include edema, chronic cough, extreme tiredness, and exercise intolerance. 
  • Metabolic Acidosis - This condition is often common in people who have kidney problems. Breathing problems can happen when the kidneys are unable to remove excess acid from the body. Other symptoms of this condition include a drop in blood pressure, muscle weakness, changes in appetite, headache, fast heart rate, and jaundice. 
  • PneumoniaThis lung infection is a very common cause of tachypnea. Pneumonia can be caused by bacteria, viruses, or fungi. It usually affects the alveoli (small air sacs) and causes breathing problems. Other symptoms of pneumonia are fever, coughing up bloody or yellow mucus, dry cough, shaking chills, and sweating. 
  • Pulmonary EmbolismIt is a serious condition, in which a lung artery is suddenly blocked by a blood clot that originates from the deep veins. Although these blood clots are small, they can be fatal when they reach the lungs. Tachypnea is one of its main symptoms, as well as chest pain, coughing up blood, sweating, and an irregular heartbeat
  • Sepsis - This is a potentially life-threatening condition that occurs when the body releases chemicals into the bloodstream to fight an infection. These chemicals can trigger inflammatory responses all throughout the body and cause changes that can damage multiple organs. Its symptoms include tachypnea, abnormal heart functions, altered mental status, decreased urination, extreme changes in body temperature, chills and shivering, and septic shock. 

What are the physiological causes?

  • Tachypnea can happen there is a low amount of oxygen present in the blood (hypoxemia) or when there is a rise in the level of carbon dioxide present in the blood (hypercapnia).
  • Tachypnea can also occur when there is a disturbance in the acid-base balance in the body. 

What are the pathological causes?

  • Cardiovascular-related conditions: Heart-related conditions include anemia, heart failure, and low thyroid, which are all said to cause tachypnea.
  • Neurological Disorders: Tachypnea is directly caused by certain abnormalities present in the brain, and one of them is the presence of a brain tumor.
  • Use of drugs: Marijuana, aspirin, and other types of stimulants are all known to cause rapid, shallow breathing. 
  • Fever: Sometimes, even fever can cause tachypnea in people. Tachypnea is a compensatory mechanism to rapidly reduce heat in the body. 

Diagnosis

Your healthcare provider may administer treatment right away to help you breathe easier. You may also be asked questions about your condition and symptoms. Treatment may include receiving oxygen through a mask. Once you are stabilized, the doctor will start asking questions, which may include:

  • The time when your breathing problems began
  • The medications you are taking
  • If you have pre-existing medical conditions
  • If you have other respiratory conditions, such as bronchitis, asthma, or COPD
  • If you recently had the flu or cold

After the doctor takes your medical history, your lungs and heart will be examined using a stethoscope. A pulse oximeter can also be placed on your finger to check your body's oxygen level. An arterial blood gas test may also be performed to check your oxygen levels. This test involves collecting blood from your artery, which causes some discomfort. Before blood collection, a numbing agent can be applied to avoid such discomfort. 

Imaging Scans

Imaging scans are used to detect signs of disease, infection, or lung damage. An X-ray can be used in this case. However, in some cases, other imaging tests such as an ultrasound, MRI, and CT scan may also be necessary. 

Treatment

Treatment for tachypnea is usually based on its exact cause.

  • Chronic Illness: COPD and asthma are chronic conditions that do not go away. However, certain treatments can help minimize the symptoms, including tachypnea. Treatment may include oxygen tanks (extreme conditions), prescription medications, or inhalers. 
  • Anxiety Disorder: If you experience tachypnea due to your anxiety or panic attacks, your healthcare provider may recommend anxiolytics along with therapy. Anxiolytics are anti-anxiety medications, which include alprazolam (Xanax), clonazepam (Klonopin, Rivotril), and buspirone (Buspar).
  • Lung Infections: Lung infections can be treated with antibiotics and inhalers (albuterol) to relieve rapid, shallow breathing as well as clear the infection. However, antibiotics are not effective in certain infections. In such cases, medications that can open the airways can help treat the infection. 
  • Other Forms of Treatment: If all of the above treatments fail to work, your healthcare provider will give you a medication called a beta-blocker to help correct your breathing. Beta-blockers include atenolol, bisoprolol, and acebutolol, which counteract the effects of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a hormone that causes rapid breathing and a fast heart rate. 

Key Takeaways

  • Rapid, shallow breathing, also medically called as tachypnea, is a term used to describe a breathing that is too fast, particularly when people have it due to a lung disease or other health conditions. 
  • Breathing problems are often caused by a carbon dioxide buildup in the lungs.
  • Treatment for tachypnea is usually based on its exact cause.