Rapid Shallow Breathing
The average person takes between eight and 16 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 is sometimes called hyperventilation. Both terms are used interchangeably, and may be brought on by anything from a lung infection to heart failure. This symptom should always be reported and treated promptly to prevent complications.
When It’s an Emergency
Tachypnea is caused by many different conditions. A proper diagnosis from your doctor will help determine a cause. This means that any instance of tachypnea should be reported to your doctor and should always be treated as a medical emergency, particularly the first time you experience it.
Call 911 if you experience any of the following symptoms:
- bluish/gray tint to the skin and nails
- bluish/gray tint to the lips and gums
- chest pain
- worsening rapid breathing
- chest that caves in with each breath
Common Causes of Rapid Shallow Breathing
Rapid shallow breathing can be caused by infections, choking, blood clots, 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, causing difficulty taking in deep breaths. In rare cases, untreated infections can be fatal.
When you choke, your airway is partially or completely blocked by an object. If you can breathe at all, the breaths will not be deep or relaxed. In cases of choking, immediate medical attention is crucial.
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.
Hyperventilation is a symptom of an asthma attack. Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs and is 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 may be treated with prescription medications and counseling.
COPD (Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease)
COPD is a common lung disease, which is comprised of either chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways. Emphysema is the destruction of air sacs in the lungs.
What to Expect at the Doctor’s Office
The doctor may immediately administer treatment to correct your breathing pattern and make it easier for you to take deep breaths. Then he or she may ask questions related to your symptoms or your condition. This treatment could include providing oxygen-rich air through a mask.
Once the medical emergency has been handled, your doctor will then ask questions such as:
- When did the 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 your medical history is taken, your doctor will listen to your heart and lungs with a stethoscope. He or she will 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 anesthesia (a numbing agent) can be applied to the area before having your blood drawn.
Your doctor may want to take a closer look at your lungs to check for lung damage, signs of disease, or infection. Commonly, an X-ray is used for this purpose, but in some cases, an ultrasound may be necessary. The use of other imaging tests such as an MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) or a CT (computed tomography) scan are rare, but may be necessary.
Treatment options vary depending on the exact cause of the breathing issues.
Rapid and shallow breathing caused by an infection may be treated with an inhaler used to open the airways, such as albuterol, and antibiotics to help clear the infection. Antibiotics are not useful in the case of certain infections. In these cases, breathing treatments are used to open the airways while the infection goes away on its own.
Chronic conditions including asthma and COPD do not 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 are still breathing rapidly and the above treatments aren’t working, your doctor will prescribe you a beta-blocker medication to correct your breathing. These medications include acebutolol, atenolol, and bisoprolol. They are commonly used to treat high blood pressure. They work for rapid, shallow breathing by counteracting the effects of adrenaline (a stress hormone that increases heart rate and breathing).
Preventative measures depend on the cause of your rapid breathing. For instance, if it is caused by asthma, avoiding allergens, strenuous exercise, and irritants like smoke and pollution could prevent attacks.
You may be able to stop hyperventilation before it develops into an emergency.
If you are hyperventilating, you need to increase your carbon dioxide intake and decrease your oxygen intake. To do this, position your lips as if you are sucking through a straw and breathe. You can also close your mouth and cover one of your nostrils and breathe through the open nostril.
The cause of your hyperventilation might make preventing it difficult. However, seeking quick treatment for the underlying cause may stop the problem from worsening or becoming frequent.