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Rapid, shallow breathing is often referred to as tachypnea, which occurs when you take more breaths than usual in a given minute. This is usually defined as more than 20 breaths per minute in an adult. In children, the number of breaths per minute can be a higher resting rate than seen in adults.

The average adult typically takes 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Rapid breathing can be the result of anything from anxiety or asthma, to a lung infection or heart failure.

When a person breathes rapidly, it’s sometimes known as hyperventilation, but hyperventilation usually refers to rapid, deep breaths.

Tell your doctor when you experience rapid, shallow breathing, so you can ensure you’re getting quick treatment and preventing complications.

Underlying diseases and conditions like infections and asthma can cause tachypnea, but it can also occur due to choking or blood clots.

Physical causes of tachypnea

Tachypnea isn’t always the result of a chronic medical or health condition.

Choking

When you choke, an object partially or completely blocks your airway. If you can breathe at all, your breathing won’t be deep or relaxed.

In cases of choking, immediate medical attention is crucial.

Anxiety attacks

While anxiety is often thought of as a purely mental disorder, anxiety can have physical symptoms on the body.

Anxiety attacks are physical responses to fear or anxiety. In an anxiety attack, you may experience rapid breathing or shortness of breath.

Strenuous physical activity

During increased physical activity like intense exercise or vigorous sex, the body uses up more oxygen and sees an increase in carbon dioxide. Studies show that you may breathe three or four times more frequently as a result.

Exercise is a classic example of hyperpnea. Hyperpnea is the appropriate breathing response to increasing carbon dioxide production in the body.

While you take part in these activities, tachypnea and hyperpnea are helpful and appropriate rather than a sign of any health problems. It’s your body’s way of meeting these increased oxygen demands and getting rid of carbon dioxide.

Pathological causes of tachypnea

Some underlying conditions could mean that rapid, shallow breathing points to a serious health risk.

Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)

TTN is a condition exclusive to newborn babies. For a few days following birth, babies with TTN may take more than 60 breaths per minute. Other symptoms include:

  • grunting
  • nasal flaring
  • skin and muscles that appear to be caving in during breaths

However, this rapid breathing usually gets better without treatment after 48 hours.

If a birthing parent delivers an infant before their due date, it makes TTN more likely. However, children of any gestational age might have TTN right after birth. TTN occurs because the newborn lungs experience a delay in clearing fluid, although it’s unclear exactly how this develops.

Possible risk factors include:

  • delivery before 39 weeks of gestation
  • cesarean delivery without labor
  • gestational diabetes in the parent
  • asthma in the birthing parent
  • being small or large for their gestational age
  • perinatal asphyxia, or reduced blood and gas transfer to and from the fetus around the time of birth

TTN is typically a benign condition. Symptoms generally resolve after 12 to 24 hours, but may persist as long as 72 hours in severe cases. Therefore, if symptoms get worse or don’t resolve soon after delivery, a doctor may refer the child to a newborn intensive care unit for oxygen supplementation, monitoring, and treatment.

Allergic reactions

An allergic response to a particular trigger or stimulus might lead to a physical reaction that includes tachypnea.

Other conditions that may result in tachypnea

Infections

Infections that affect the lungs, such as pneumonia or bronchitis, can cause difficulty breathing. This may translate to shorter and more rapid breaths.

For instance, children 1 year and older with bronchiolitis may take more than 40 breaths per minute, according to the World Health Organization.

If these infections get worse, the lungs could fill with fluid. This makes it difficult to take in deep breaths. Some rare infections can be fatal without treatment.

Respiratory issues

If structural damage, inflammation, or infection is affecting how your lungs function, your breathing is likely to become less effective as a result. These can be acute or chronic and may include:

  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder (COPD). This is a common lung disease. It includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways, and emphysema is the destruction of air sacs in the lungs.
  • Pleural effusion. This occurs when too much fluid builds up between the thin membranes that line the lung, also known as the pleura.
  • Pulmonary embolism. This is a blood clot in the lung. This can lead to tachypnea, along with chest pain, coughing, and irregular breathing.
  • Asthma. Tachypnea can be a symptom of an asthma attack. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the lungs. It is frequently the cause of rapid and shallow breathing in children, which can be worse at night, after exercise, or during contact with triggers such as allergens and cold air.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning. If you breathe in too much of the odorless, colorless gas carbon monoxide, it could lead to tachypnea, as well as a headache, nausea, dizziness, and possible unconsciousness.

Sepsis

This is a body-wide infection that is potentially fatal. It’s a medical emergency that usually develops as an extreme response to an infection.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), lung infections are common triggers of sepsis, and tachypnea is one of its symptoms.

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)

This serious condition occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin. As a result, acids called ketones build up in your body.

DKA often leads to rapid breathing, which includes hyperpnea and hyperventilation, to compensate for the buildup of ketoacids in the body. If your body cannot handle this increased breathing pattern, you may tire out, leading to respiratory distress.

Rapid, shallow breathing is tachypnea’s main characteristic. Other symptoms might accompany it, including:

  • breathlessness
  • visible blueness in the tips of your fingers and lips if you have low oxygen levels in your blood
  • increased pulling in and out of the chest while breathing, as breathing takes more effort

Tachypnea vs. dyspnea: What’s the difference?

The terms tachypnea and dyspnea mean different things:

  • Tachypnea. This is a medical description of rapid, shallow breathing, with no focus on how the sensation feels for the person experiencing it.
  • Dyspnea. This is a term that describes the feeling of breathlessness. Some people with tachypnea will experience breathlessness, but others may not.

Always treat rapid, shallow breathing as a medical emergency, particularly the first time you experience it.

Call 911 or seek emergency medical attention if you experience any of the following:

Tachypnea can be the result of many different conditions. A proper diagnosis from your doctor will help determine a cause. This means it’s a good idea to report any instance of tachypnea to your doctor.

Your doctor may immediately administer treatment to correct your breathing pattern and make it easier for you to take deep breaths. Your treatment could include receiving oxygen-rich air through a mask. Then, they’ll ask questions related to your symptoms or your condition.

Once your condition stabilizes, your doctor will ask some questions to help them diagnose the cause. Questions may include:

  • When did your breathing problems begin?
  • Are you taking any medications?
  • Do you have any preexisting medical conditions?
  • Do you have any breathing problems or lung conditions such as asthma, bronchitis, or emphysema?
  • Have you recently had a cold or the flu?

After taking your medical history, your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope. They’ll use a pulse oximeter to check your oxygen level. This is a small monitor worn on your finger.

If necessary, the doctor may check your oxygen levels using an arterial blood gas test. For this test, they’ll withdraw a small amount of blood from your artery and send it to a lab for analysis. The test causes some discomfort, so your doctor may apply anesthesia (a numbing agent) to the area before drawing blood.

Imaging scans

Your doctor may want to take a closer look at your lungs to check for lung damage, signs of disease, or infection.

Doctors commonly use an X-ray for this at first. But, in some cases, your doctor may order a CT scan of the chest to get a more detailed image of your lungs. Ultrasound is simple and helpful if the physician wants to evaluate a pleural effusion. They will not commonly request an MRI to evaluate lung problems.

Treatment options vary depending on the exact cause of your breathing issues.

Lung infections

Effective treatments for rapid and shallow breathing due to infection are:

  • an inhaler for symptomatic relief that opens the airways, such as albuterol
  • antibiotics to help clear bacterial infection

Antibiotics aren’t useful for certain infections, such as those that result from a virus. In these cases, breathing treatments that open the airway and supportive care are the mainstay therapies for most viruses.

Chronic conditions

There’s no way to cure chronic conditions, including asthma and COPD. However, with treatment, you can minimize rapid, shallow breathing. Treating these conditions can include:

  • prescription medications
  • inhalers
  • oxygen tanks in severe cases

DKA is a serious complication of diabetes, and doctors consider it to be a medical emergency. The increased breathing rate and volume need close monitoring while your doctor addresses the underlying trigger of the DKA.

Anxiety disorders

If you experience rapid, shallow breathing as a symptom of an anxiety attack, your doctor will likely recommend a combination of talk therapy and anti-anxiety medication. These medications could include:

Preventive measures depend on the cause of your rapid breathing. For instance, if it’s due to asthma, you can avoid allergens, strenuous exercise, and irritants like smoke and pollution.

To help with tachypnea:

  1. Try to take slow, deep breaths using your diaphragm, allowing you enough time for a full exhalation.
  2. Breathe in through the nose and out through the mouth.

It’s important to evaluate the underlying cause of your tachypnea, so you can focus on prevention as well as treatment. Addressing the underlying cause may stop the problem from getting worse or becoming frequent.

Rapid, shallow breathing may be a sign of a medical concern, though the severity may vary.

It’s always a good idea to get a doctor’s diagnosis on rapid breathing — especially in the case of newborns and young children, who might not be able to fully convey their symptoms.