What Causes Rapid Shallow Breathing?

Medically reviewed by Steve Kim, MD on March 1, 2016 Written by April Kahn

The average person takes between 12 to 20 breaths per minute. 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... Read More

The average person takes between 12 to 20 breaths per minute. 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. Either term applies to this condition. Rapid, shallow breathing can be the result of anything from a lung infection to heart failure. You should always report this symptom to your doctor and get prompt treatment to prevent complications.

When to Seek Medical Attention

You should always treat tachypnea as a medical emergency, particularly the first time you experience it.

Call 911 if you experience any of the following:

  • a bluish/gray tint to your skin, nails, lips, or gums
  • lightheadedness
  • chest pain
  • chest that caves in with each breath
  • rapid breathing that gets worse
  • fever

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.

What Causes Rapid, Shallow Breathing?

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 may translate to 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.

Blood Clots

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.

Diabetic Ketoacidosis

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

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.

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.

How Is the Cause of Rapid, Shallow Breathing Diagnosed?

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?
  • 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 oximeter 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, the doctor withdraws a small amount of blood from your artery and sends 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 can 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.

What Are the Treatment Options for Rapid, Shallow Breathing?

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. 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 and shallow breathing. Treatment for diseases like this can include prescription medications, inhalers, and oxygen tanks in extreme cases.

Anxiety Disorders

If you experience rapid and 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 Xanax, Klonopin, and buspirone.

Other Treatments

If you’re still breathing rapidly and the above treatments aren’t working, your doctor will prescribe a beta-blocker medication to correct your breathing. These medications include acebutolol, atenolol, and bisoprolol. They treat rapid, shallow breathing by counteracting the effects of adrenaline. Adrenaline is a stress hormone that increases heart rate and breathing.

How Can I Prevent Rapid, Shallow Breathing?

Preventative 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 do this, 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.

Medically reviewed by Steve Kim, MD on March 1, 2016 Written by April Kahn

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This feature is for informational purposes only and should not be used to diagnose. Please consult a healthcare professional if you have health concerns.

Medically reviewed by Steve Kim, MD on March 1, 2016 Written by April Kahn