Kussmaul breathing is characterized by deep, rapid, and labored breathing. This distinct, abnormal breathing pattern can result from certain medical conditions, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, which is a serious complication of diabetes.

Kussmaul breathing is named for Dr. Adolf Kussmaul, who first described the breathing pattern in 1874.

Keep reading to find out more about Kussmaul breathing, including what causes it and how to recognize this breathing pattern.

When it comes to Kussmaul breathing, it helps to remember that your body is always trying to find balance.

Your body maintains a steady pH level of 7.35 to 7.45. When this pH level becomes higher or lower, your body has to find ways to try make up for the pH changes. This is where Kussmaul breathing comes in.

Let’s look at some possible causes of pH changes that may lead to Kussmaul breathing.

Diabetic ketoacidosis

One of the most common causes of Kussmaul breathing is diabetic ketoacidosis, which is a serious complication most often associated with type 1 diabetes. However, it can also be caused by type 2 diabetes.

Diabetic ketoacidosis can be triggered if your body doesn’t produce enough insulin and isn’t able to process glucose properly. This can lead to dehydration, which, in turn, can cause your body to start breaking down fat for energy at a rapid rate.

The byproducts of this are ketones, which are highly acidic and can cause acid to build up in your body.

Here’s an explanation of how diabetic ketoacidosis can lead to Kussmaul breathing:

  • Extra ketones in your body cause acid to build up in your blood.
  • Because of this, your respiratory system is triggered to start breathing faster.
  • Faster breathing helps expel more carbon dioxide, which is an acidic compound in your blood.
  • If acid levels keep going up and you don’t get treatment, your body will signal that you need to take deeper breaths.
  • This results in Kussmaul breathing, which is characterized by deep, fast breaths, to try to expel as much carbon dioxide as possible.

Other causes

Some other possible causes of Kussmaul breathing include:

  • organ failure, such as heart, kidney, or liver failure
  • some types of cancer
  • long-term overuse of alcohol
  • the ingestion of toxins, such as salicylates (aspirin), methanol, ethanol, or antifreeze
  • seizures
  • sepsis
  • overexertion, which typically resolves quickly with rest

Each of these conditions causes a buildup of acid in the blood. With the exception of overexertion, most of these conditions are due to metabolic factors.

This means that the organs normally responsible for filtering waste products can’t keep up as well as they need to. These waste products, which are usually acidic, build up in the blood, and your body tries to reverse this imbalance.

Some of the symptoms of Kussmaul breathing include:

  • deep breathing
  • a rapid respiratory rate
  • a respiratory rate that is even and consistent in rate and rhythm

Some people describe Kussmaul breathing as “air hunger.” This means that if you experience it, you may appear as though you are gasping for breath, or as though your breathing seems panicked.

People with Kussmaul breathing have no control over the way they are breathing. It is the body’s response to an underlying condition.

Because Kussmaul breathing is often caused by diabetic ketoacidosis, it’s important to recognize the warning signs of this condition, which can come on very quickly.

Some common symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis include:

Getting Medical attention

Unless symptoms are caused by overexertion, it’s essential that anyone with symptoms of Kussmaul breathing gets immediate medical attention.

Treating Kussmaul breathing involves addressing the underlying condition that caused it. Most often, treatment requires a hospital stay.

Treatment for diabetic ketoacidosis typically requires intravenous fluid and electrolyte replacement. Insulin will likely also be administered in the same way, until your blood sugar levels are below 240 milligrams per deciliter.

In the case of uremia, you may require dialysis to reduce the buildup of excess toxins that your kidneys can’t filter.

Preventing Kussmaul breathing most often involves careful management of chronic medical conditions.

If you have diabetes, this includes:

  • taking diabetes medication as directed
  • following a meal plan as directed by a healthcare provider
  • staying well hydrated
  • checking blood sugar levels regularly
  • testing urine for ketones

If you have a kidney-related condition, this includes:

  • adopting a kidney-friendly diet
  • avoiding alcohol
  • staying well hydrated
  • keeping blood sugar levels under control

Another type of abnormal breathing pattern is Cheyne-Stokes breathing. Although this can happen when you’re awake, it’s more common during sleep.

Cheyne-Stokes breathing is typically characterized by:

  • a gradual increase in breathing, followed by a decrease
  • an apneic, or non-breathing, phase that occurs after a person’s breathing gets more shallow
  • an apneic period that typically lasts 15 to 60 seconds

Cheyne-Stokes breathing is often related to heart failure or stroke. It can also be caused by conditions related to the brain, such as:

Here’s a comparison between Cheyne-Stokes and Kussmaul breathing:

  • Causes: Kussmaul breathing is usually caused by high acidity levels in the blood. Cheyne-Stokes breathing is usually related to heart failure, stroke, head injuries, or brain conditions.
  • Pattern: Kussmaul breathing doesn’t alternate between periods of fast and slow breathing. It also doesn’t cause breathing to temporarily stop like Cheyne-Stokes breathing does.
  • Rate: Kussmaul breathing is usually even and rapid. Although Cheyne-Stokes breathing can be rapid at times, the pattern isn’t consistent. It can slow down and even stop before the person starts breathing again.

Kussmaul breathing is characterized by a deep, rapid breathing pattern. It is typically an indication that the body or organs have become too acidic. In an attempt to expel carbon dioxide, which is an acidic compound in blood, the body starts to breathe faster and deeper.

This abnormal breathing pattern is often caused by diabetic ketoacidosis, which is a serious complication of type 1 and, less often, type 2 diabetes. It can also be caused by kidney or liver failure, some cancers, or the ingestion of toxins.

If you suspect that you or a loved one has symptoms of Kussmaul breathing or diabetic ketoacidosis, it’s essential that you seek medical attention immediately.