Rapid, shallow breathing, also called tachypnea, occurs when you take more breaths than normal in a given minute. When a person breathes rapidly, it’s sometimes known as hyperventilation, but hyperventilation usually refers to rapid, deep breaths.

The average adult normally takes between 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.

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

You should 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 that you should report any instance of tachypnea to your doctor.

Rapid, shallow breathing can be caused by several things including infections, choking, blood clots, and more.

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.

If these infections worsen, the lungs could fill with fluid. This makes it difficult to take in deep breaths. In rare cases, untreated infections can be fatal.

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.

Blood clots

A pulmonary embolism is a blood clot in the lung. This can lead to hyperventilation, along with:

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 can lead to fatal respiratory failure.

Asthma

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory condition of the lungs. Hyperventilation can be a symptom of an asthma attack.

Asthma is frequently the cause of rapid and shallow breathing in children, which can worsen at night, after exercise, or during contact with triggers such as allergens and cold air.

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.

Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)

COPD is a common lung disease. It includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways. Emphysema is the destruction of air sacs in the lungs.

Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)

TTN is a condition exclusive to newborns. It starts immediately after birth, lasting for a few days.

Babies with TTN may take more than 60 breaths per minute, and other symptoms include grunting and nasal flaring.

Your doctor may immediately administer treatment to correct your breathing pattern and make it easier for you to take deep breaths. Then they’ll 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. 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. A pulse oximeteris 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 your 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, but in some cases an ultrasound may be necessary.

Other imaging tests such as an MRI or a CT scan are rare, but may be necessary.

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

Lung infections

Effective treatments for rapid and shallow breathing caused by an infection are an inhaler that opens the airways, such as albuterol, and antibiotics to help clear the infection.

Antibiotics aren’t useful for certain infections, though. In these cases, breathing treatments open the airways and the infection goes away on its own.

Chronic conditions

Chronic conditions, including asthma and COPD, don’t go away. However, with treatment you can minimize rapid, shallow breathing. Treating these conditions can include prescription medications, inhalers, and oxygen tanks in extreme cases.

DKA is a serious complication of diabetes and is also considered a medical emergency. Hyperventilation from diabetes requires oxygen therapy as well as electrolytes.

Anxiety disorders

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

Other treatments

If you’re still breathing rapidly and the above treatments aren’t working, your doctor may prescribe a beta-blocker medication to correct your breathing, such as acebutolol, atenolol, and bisoprolol.

These medications treat rapid, shallow breathing by counteracting the effects of adrenaline, a stress hormone that increases heart rate and breathing.

Babies with TTN are treated with oxygen. This requires the use of breathing machines.

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

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.

To help with breathing, position your lips as if you’re sucking through a straw and breathe. You can also close your mouth, then cover one of your nostrils and breathe through the open nostril.

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.

Rapid, shallow breathing is 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.