Everything You Need to Know About Tachypnea (Rapid Breathing)

Medically Reviewed By Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
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Tachypnea describes rapid and shallow breathing. While it may not always result from a serious medical condition, a doctor should evaluate persistent or severe tachypnea. The typical breathing rate for an adult is 12–20 breaths per minute (bpm). While children generally have faster breathing rates, tachypnea — especially in newborns — can be a sign of a serious underlying issue.

Read on to learn more about tachypnea’s causes, treatments, and potential complications.

What is tachypnea? 

A person catching their breath after swimming
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Tachypnea is the medical term for rapid, shallow breathing. The average adult takes around 12–20 breaths each minute. In normal conditions, more than 20 bpm in an adult is tachypnea.

Children’s usual rate of breathing varies by their age. However, children’s respiratory rates generally tend to be faster than adults.  

Unlike hyperventilation, the rapid breaths of tachypnea are shallow instead of deep. Rapid breathing can be the result of various medical issues, both physical and mental.

What are the causes of tachypnea?

In some cases, tachypnea may result from chronic underlying health conditions. In other cases, it is the result of more acute medical issues.

Below are some common causes of tachypnea.

Strenuous physical activity

Intense exercise can result in tachypnea due to an increase in your body’s demand for oxygen. In these cases, tachypnea is a typical and expected response.

Anxiety attack

Panic and anxiety are mental conditions that can produce physical responses. For example, when you experience fear or anxiety, your breathing rate may increase and become shallower. 

Allergic reactions

Allergies can trigger a physical response that includes tachypnea. They may affect your airways by causing inflammation, which can cause you to breathe more rapidly. 

Infections

Infections that occur in your lungs can cause issues with your breathing. Conditions such as pneumonia can make breathing difficult and cause your breaths to become faster than usual, and hard to take a deep breath or both.

The worse the infection becomes, the higher your chances of experiencing tachypnea, especially if your lungs begin to fill with fluid. 

Sepsis

Sepsis occurs when the body overreacts to an infection and triggers tachypnea. Infections in the lungs are common causes of sepsis.

Diabetic ketoacidosis (DKA)

DKA develops when acids called ketones build up in your body. It is typically the result of a lack of insulin production. Both tachypnea and hyperventilation can be common symptoms of DKA as your body tries to adjust to high ketone levels.

Respiratory conditions

Various respiratory conditions can produce rapid, shallow breathing. These conditions can inflame or damage the tissues of the respiratory system: 

  • Asthma: Asthma is inflammation of the lungs that can narrow breathing passages and cause an overproduction of mucus. This chronic condition can make breathing difficult, resulting in tachypnea. 
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD): COPD includes chronic bronchitis or emphysema that cause damage to the lung’s air sacs. People with COPD may present with tachypnea.
  • Carbon monoxide poisoning: Carbon monoxide, an odorless and colorless gas, is poisonous to humans. Breathing in high levels of carbon monoxide can cause shallow and rapid breathing, along with other symptoms such as headache, dizziness, and nausea
  • Pleural effusion: This condition occurs when fluid accumulates between the pleura, the thin membranes of your lungs. People with pleural effusions can experience tachypnea. 
  • Pulmonary embolism: When a blood clot occurs in your lungs, it results in a condition called a “pulmonary embolism.” Symptoms of a pulmonary embolism include chest pain, fast and shallow breaths, and coughing. 
  • Choking: Choking is the partial or complete obstruction of your airway, often due to a foreign object. If you can breathe past the blockage, the resulting breaths will be shallow and fast-paced. 

Transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN)

TTN is an especially concerning condition in newborns. It causes consistently rapid breathing — more than 60 bpm — for days after birth.

TTN results from the delayed clearing of fluids from a newborn’s lungs. Newborns with the condition may also present with nasal flaring, grunting, or caving in of skin and muscles during inhalation. 

In most cases, treatment is unnecessary, and symptoms will improve within 48 hours. If TTN does not resolve on its own, your doctor may move the newborn to a unit with increased monitoring and administer supplemental oxygen. 

What other symptoms might occur with tachypnea?

Rapid, shallow breaths predominantly characterize tachypnea. However, other symptoms can occur, including: 

  • an increased effort that contracts the chest
  • the feeling that you cannot catch your breath
  • a blue tinge to the lips or fingertips from low oxygen levels  

How do doctors diagnose tachypnea?

In most cases, stabilizing your breathing to promote adequate oxygen levels is essential to treating tachypnea. Your doctor will likely want to do this before conducting further tests.

After your breathing has stabilized, your doctor may ask about your medical history and any events that could have triggered your tachypnea. 

It is important to tell your doctor about any underlying conditions you have and the medications you are taking. In addition, describing the environment or activity you were participating in when your breathing issues started can help your doctor determine the cause of your tachypnea. 

Your doctor may then want to perform a physical examination. They may: 

  • listen to your breathing, heart, and lungs with a stethoscope
  • measure your oxygen levels with a pulse oximeter
  • perform a blood analysis called an arterial blood gas test to measure the oxygen in your blood
  • order imaging scans such as an X-ray or CT scan to take a closer look at your lungs

What are the treatments for tachypnea?

Treatment for tachypnea will vary depending on the underlying cause. A healthcare professional will most likely administer oxygen through a mask or nasal cannula. 

For chronic conditions, your doctor may prescribe an inhaler, prescription medications, or an oxygen delivery system with a tank. Infections may require antibiotics or breathing treatments via a nebulizer or inhaler. 

Tachypnea brought on by anxiety or distress may be manageable with anti-anxiety medications and talk therapy. 

What is the outlook for people with tachypnea?

The underlying cause will determine the outlook for people experiencing tachypnea. Some people may be able to relieve their symptoms by avoiding certain triggers or activities. Others may need treatment from a doctor to manage chronic or acute conditions.

What are some potential complications of tachypnea?

Without treatment, tachypnea can cause unusual heart rhythms. Also, tachypnea can cause hyperventilation, which may lead to reduced levels of carbon dioxide in the blood. This condition, called hypocapnia or hypocarbia, can lead to respiratory distress.

When should you see a doctor about tachypnea? 

Contact your doctor if you are experiencing persistent or severe tachypnea or cannot identify an obvious cause. In addition, call 911 or go to the nearest emergency room if tachypnea occurs with other serious symptoms like:

Summary

Tachypnea is the medical term for a rapid breathing rate, generally more than 20 bpm. While it may result from a relatively benign condition, such as intense exercise, it may also arise due to a serious underlying condition.

Contact your doctor if you are experiencing tachypnea. They can help you identify the cause and determine the proper treatment plan.

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Medical Reviewer: Avi Varma, MD, MPH, AAHIVS, FAAFP
Last Review Date: 2022 Aug 30
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THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
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