Tachypnea is the medical term for rapid and shallow breathing, often confused with hyperventilation, which is breathing that is rapid but deep. Both disorders are caused by a buildup of carbon dioxide in the lungs, which causes a buildup of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. Whenever this happens, the blood becomes more acidic than usual, and this alerts the brain that something is wrong. In response, the brain signals the respiratory system to pick up the pace to try to fix the imbalance and stabilize the blood's pH back within its normal range. The normal breathing rate for a healthy resting adult is in the range of 8-16 breaths per minute. Anything higher than that is considered tachypnea. Newborn infants can experience a form of tachypnea called transient tachypnea. This occurs when there is fluid in the lungs, causing fast and shallow breathing. The condition usually goes away on its own within the first 24 hours, and infants should be closely monitored during this time.
Rapid, shallow breathing can be caused by infections, choking, blood clots, diabetic ketoacidosis, heart failure, or asthma.
Infections that affect the lungs, such as pneumonia or bronchiolitis, can cause difficulty breathing. This means shorter and more rapid breaths. If these infections worsen, the lungs could fill with fluid. Fluid in the lungs makes it difficult to take in deep breaths. In rare cases, untreated infections can be fatal.
When you choke, an object partially or completely blocks your airway. If you can breathe at all, the breaths will not be deep or relaxed. In cases of choking, immediate medical attention is crucial.
A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lung. This can lead to hyperventilation, along with chest pain, coughing, and rapid or irregular heart beat.
This serious condition occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin. As a result, acids called ketones build up in your body. This often leads to rapid breathing.
Hyperventilation is a symptom of an asthma attack. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs. It’s frequently the cause of rapid and shallow breathing in children.
Anxiety attacks, also called panic attacks, are a physical response to fear or anxiety. They are often a symptom of an anxiety disorder, which prescription medications and counseling can treat.
Obviously, the most pronounced symptom is breathing that is fast and shallow. When the lungs have too much carbon dioxide, it creates a feeling like you can't get enough air. Other symptoms may include a bluish-gray tint of the skin, nails, lips, or gums, lightheadedness, chest pain, fever, a chest that caves in with each breath, or breathing that gets worse over time.
The doctor may immediately administer treatment to correct your breathing pattern and make it easier for you to take deep breaths. Then they may ask questions related to your symptoms or your condition. Your treatment could include receiving oxygen-rich air through a mask. Once your condition stabilizes, your doctor will ask some questions to help them diagnose the cause. For example:
- When did your breathing problems begin?
- Are you taking any medications?
- Do you have any preexisting medical conditions?
- Have you recently had a cold or the flu?
The treatment of tachypnea depends primarily on determining and correcting the underlying cause.
You may be able to stop hyperventilation before it develops into an emergency. If you’re hyperventilating, you need to increase your carbon dioxide intake and decrease your oxygen intake. The cause of your hyperventilation might make prevention difficult. However, seeking quick treatment for the underlying cause may stop the problem from getting worse or becoming frequent.