Bradypnea is the medical term for abnormally slow breathing.

There are many possible causes of bradypnea, or bradypnoea, including cardiac problems, medications or drugs, and hormonal imbalances.

In this article, we take a close look at bradypnea, including the breathing rate for it, the causes, and treatment options.

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A person who takes less than 12 breaths per minute has bradypnea.

Bradypnea means that a person takes fewer breaths per minute than is usual for their age and activity level.

According to experts, the normal and abnormal breathing rates for an adult, in breaths per minute, are as follows:

  • between 12 and 20 is normal
  • under 12 is abnormally slow
  • over 25 is abnormally fast

When a person has a breathing rate of below 12 breaths per minute for more than 2 minutes, this suggests bradypnea. The average rate of breathing differs between individuals and can change depending on a person’s age and activity levels.

Bradypnea can cause:

Bradypnea can occur when a person is awake or asleep. It is different from apnea, which is a temporary halt in breathing that is most common when a person is sleeping.

Bradypnea is also not the same as heavy or labored breathing, the medical term for which is dyspnea.

Tachypnea is another separate term that refers to an abnormally fast breathing rate. The symptoms and causes of bradypnea and tachypnea are different.

Bradypnea is a symptom rather than a condition in itself. It can signify an underlying physical problem or health condition, or it may indicate over-medication.

There are many causes of bradypnea, which include:

Exposure to drugs or toxins

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Alcohol can cause bradypnea.

Various drugs, including alcohol and opioids, can cause an abnormally slow rate of breathing.

Bradypnea is one symptom of a drug overdose.

Exposure to poisonous industrial chemicals or dangerous levels of carbon monoxide can also slow a person’s breathing rate.


Various medications that doctors use during surgery can cause bradypnea, including:

  • muscle relaxants
  • postoperative pain treatments
  • anesthetics

Hormonal imbalances

People with a condition called hypothyroidism have an underactive thyroid gland that may not produce enough hormones to keep the body’s metabolism at optimal levels. A slower breathing rate can develop as a result.

Problems with the brain stem

The process of breathing begins in the brain. The respiratory centers in the lower brain stem and spinal cord send signals that stimulate the lungs, breathing muscles, and the rest of the body.

Problems with the brain, such as blood clots, tumors, and brain injuries, can interfere with the brain’s ability to send these signals. This interference may slow down the rate of breathing.

Problems with the heart

Due to a connection between heart rhythm and breathing rates, anything that interferes with the function of the heart, such as heart failure or heart infection, can affect the activity of the respiratory system too.

Electrolyte imbalances

Minerals with an electrical charge, called electrolytes, play a role in keeping the body’s systems in balance.

Electrolytes include potassium, sodium, magnesium, calcium, phosphate, and chloride.

If the proportions of these electrolytes in the blood and tissue are out of balance, the body does not function as it should, which could result in abnormally slow breathing. Too much or too little water can cause electrolyte imbalances.

Slow breathing can result in low oxygen levels in the body. The most noticeable symptoms of bradypnea are similar to those of oxygen deprivation.

The symptoms of bradypnea include:

  • lightheadedness
  • feeling faint
  • dizziness
  • chronic fatigue
  • headaches
  • weakness
  • confusion
  • poor coordination
  • chest pain
  • memory problems
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A doctor may prescribe medication to treat the underlying condition causing bradypnea.

A person’s breathing rate is one of their vital signs, along with their blood pressure, body temperature, and pulse.

Medical professionals measure these vital signs regularly as the results provide a quick overview of the status of a person’s basic bodily functions.

The outlook for people with bradypnea depends primarily on the circumstances or physical conditions responsible for it.

For example, when an underactive thyroid is the cause, thyroid medication can help restore regular breathing rates and other metabolic functions.

When slow breathing is due to a complex cause, such as heart disease, doctors may give a person a breathing mask and supplemental oxygen to ensure that their body tissues are getting sufficient oxygen.

Heart problems are a leading cause of death. When bradypnea is related to heart problems, a person usually requires comprehensive treatment for the underlying cause.

Fortunately, the same medications that doctors prescribe to treat heart failure can lead to improvements in lung function.

When an opiate or alcohol overdose causes bradypnea, medical treatment can usually allow people to recover from the immediate effects.

Ongoing research on the health impacts of conscious breathing, a practice in which people try to be fully aware of their breaths in and out, could yield valuable health benefits for many respiratory conditions, including bradypnea.

For example, some people try to slow their breathing on purpose. As part of some yoga, meditation, and biofeedback techniques, people deliberately slow down and expand their breath as a relaxation method. Recent studies suggest that this may improve autonomic nervous system function and also benefit the cardiovascular and respiratory systems.

Bradypnea is when a person’s breathing is slower than usual for their age and activity levels. For an adult, this will be under 12 breaths per minute.

Slow breathing can have many causes, including heart problems, brain stem problems, and drug overdose. The best treatment and the outlook for bradypnea depend on its cause.

Read this article in Spanish.