Tachypnea is a medical term, which means rapid and shallow breathing. This condition is often confused with hyperventilation, which is another type of abnormal breathing that is characterized by rapid but deep breathing. Both conditions are caused by carbon dioxide buildup in the lungs, which can lead to an increased level of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. In such cases, the blood's pH level becomes more acidic, which sends a signal to the brain that there is something wrong with the body. The brain responds and sends a signal to the respiratory system to hasten its function in an attempt to fix the imbalance as well as to stabilize the pH levels of the blood back to normal.
Around 8-16 breaths per minute is the normal breathing rate of a healthy resting individual. When people have a breathing rate higher than this, it is considered as tachypnea.
In the case of newborn babies, they may experience a certain form of tachypnea, which is called transient tachypnea. This condition occurs when there is residual fluid present in the lungs of the baby leading to fast as well as shallow breathing. However, the condition normally resolves on its own within the first 24 hours of birth. During this period, newborn babies are closely monitored.
There are a number of conditions that can lead to the occurrence of tachypnea. Few of the chronic conditions that can trigger tachypnea include lung disease, obesity, anxiety attack, and asthma. Tachypnea can also be due to acute conditions, such as pulmonary embolism (clotting of the blood in the lungs), septic shock, heatstroke, choking, and heart failure. Lung infections, such as bronchiolitis and pneumonia, can lead to the occurrence of tachypnea as well. Let us take a look at its causes in detail:
- Choking: When an individual is choked, there would be an object that partially or completely causes blockage to the airways. If you can breathe, your breathing would not be relaxed or deep. Seek immediate medical help in cases of choking.
- Lung Infections: People who have bronchiolitis and pneumonia may experience difficulty in breathing, which can translate to shorter as well as faster breathing. When these infections worsen, the lungs become filled with fluid. This fluid present in the lungs would make it hard for people to take deep breaths. Lung infections can become life-threatening if they are left untreated.
- Blood Clot: A blood clot in the lungs is called pulmonary embolism, which can lead to abnormal breathing such as hyperventilation. Other symptoms of pulmonary embolism include irregular or rapid heartbeat, coughing, and chest pain.
- Panic Attacks: Panic attacks occur when individuals physically respond to anxiety or fear. Panic attacks are one of the symptoms of an anxiety disorder, which can be treated by counseling sessions and the use of prescription medications.
- Diabetic ketoacidosis: This serious medical condition can occur when the body is unable to produce enough insulin. As a result, certain acids known as ketones, accumulate in the body and cause rapid breathing.
- Asthma: One of the symptoms of an asthma attack is hyperventilation. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. This condition is known as one of the causes of rapid as well as shallow breathing in children.
The physiological cause of a certain condition refers to the normal response of the body to correct another type of condition. The two main physiological processes are mentioned below:
- An imbalance of respiratory gas in the body: The physiological cause of tachypnea is either low levels of oxygen present in the blood called as hypoxemia or when there is an increase in the level of carbon dioxide in the blood called as hypercapnia.
- An acid-related imbalance in the body: When the body senses that the blood has become too acidic, then it starts to blow off the carbon dioxide out of the lungs as an attempt or method to normalize the blood's pH level.
Pathological causes of tachypnea do not occur in an effort to restore balance in the body. They do the opposite instead. One of the examples would be hyperventilation, which is often a reaction to certain types of fear or anxiety in an individual.
The most obvious symptoms of tachypnea are fast and shallow breathing. These symptoms are experienced when the lungs have too much carbon dioxide in them. It is described as not getting enough air. One of the most noticeable symptoms is having a bluish or grey tint on the skin, gums, lips, or nails.
The individual may start to feel lightheaded, there would be pain in the chest, fever, breathing that tends to worsen over time, and a chest that caves in with each breath. Tachypnea is caused by a number of medical conditions. For this reason, it is important to consult a doctor for an accurate diagnosis and proper treatment.
Doctors may immediately treat patients to correct their breathing pattern, and help them take deep breaths. The doctors can also ask certain questions that are related to your symptoms. Patients are usually given oxygen-rich air through a mask.
During your doctor's visit, you may be asked the following questions:
- When did you first notice abnormal breathing patterns?
- Are you taking certain medications? What are those medications?
- Do you have any pre-existing health conditions?
- Do you any lung problems, such as bronchitis, asthma, or emphysema?
- Did you recently have a cold or flu?
The doctor would also listen to your lungs and heart using a stethoscope. A device called pulse oximeter will be used to check the level of oxygen in your body. The device is usually worn on your finger.
An arterial blood gas test can also be carried out to check your oxygen levels. In this test, a blood sample will be collected from your artery. The blood sample is then sent to the laboratory for analysis. Anesthesia may be administered to the site of blood collection to avoid feeling any discomfort.
Imaging scans may be used by doctors if they want to take a look at the patient’s lungs. These scans are quite helpful in identifying lung infections and lung damage. Imaging scans include X-rays, MRI scan, or CT scan.
Treatment of tachypnea usually depends on the exact cause of the breathing issue.
- Lung Infections: Tachypnea due to lung infections can be effectively treated using inhalers, such as albuterol. Antibiotics are also given to eliminate the infection. However, antibiotics may not be useful in certain lung infections. In such cases, other treatment options can help open the airways. Usually, such infections resolve on their own without the use of antibiotics.
- Anxiety Disorder: Individuals diagnosed with an anxiety disorder may experience rapid and shallow breathing. Doctors usually prescribe medications for anxiety along with therapy. Anti-anxiety medications may include alprazolam, clonazepam, or buspirone.
- Chronic Illness: Asthma and COPD are chronic lung conditions that do not go away on their own. However, their symptoms, which include tachypnea, can be effectively managed taking medications and using inhalers. In severe cases, an oxygen tank may be utilized.
Other Treatment Options
If the above-mentioned treatments fail to work, doctors usually prescribe beta-blockers to correct the patient’s breathing. Beta-blockers include atenolol, acebutolol, and bisoprolol. These medications counteract the effects of adrenaline, thereby relieving rapid and shallow breathing. Adrenaline is a type of hormone released during stressful situations. It usually increases your breathing and heart rate.
Preventive measures depend on the cause of rapid breathing. When tachypnea is caused by asthma, individuals must avoid strenuous exercises and exposure to allergens or irritants, such as pollution and smoke.
Hyperventilation can be stopped before it becomes a medical emergency. If a person is hyperventilating, his or her carbon dioxide intake must be increased along with decreasing the intake of oxygen. To stop hyperventilating, try breathing slowly into a paper bag or use the breathing technique called pursed lip breathing (PLB) to help control your breathing.
Conditions Similar to Tachypnea
- Heart-related conditions: Such conditions would include, anemia, heart failure, or an underactive thyroid. These conditions are related to cardiovascular changes, which can also lead to tachypnea.
- Brain tumors: Tachypnea is known to be directly caused by certain abnormalities in the brain, which include brain tumors.
- Medications: The use of certain drugs such as marijuana, aspirin, and certain stimulants often leads to a rapid or shallow breathing.
- Fever: Sometimes, a fever can also cause tachypnea. When there is a rise in body temperature, the body compensates by breathing faster to eliminate extra heat in the body.