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
- chest pain
- chest that caves in with each breath
- rapid breathing that gets worse
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.
embolism is a blood clot in the lung. This can lead to
hyperventilation, along with chest pain, coughing, and rapid or irregular heart
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, 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)
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.
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
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 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.
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.
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.