Tachypnea is a medical term that refers to fast, shallow breathing. A lack of oxygen or too much carbon dioxide in the body is a common cause. It can also result from other health issues. Tachypnea is not a disease, but a symptom that the body is trying to correct another problem.
Newborns with developing lungs may have tachypnea after birth. Children may get tachypnea when a viral respiratory infection causes fever or wheezing. Bronchitis and asthma can also cause tachypnea in children.
More generally, many conditions can cause tachypnea, including pneumonia in its early stages.
The main symptoms are:
- feeling short of breath
- a blue tint to the fingers and lips
- pulling in, or retracting, the chest when breathing
Many diseases and conditions that cause tachypnea are treatable. The following are some of the most common causes.
One reason why a person breathes faster than normal is to take in more oxygen. The oxygen level in the body may be too low, or the carbon dioxide level may be too high. The body tries to correct this by breathing more quickly.
Certain illnesses affecting the lungs can reduce oxygen in the blood or raise the level of carbon dioxide, causing tachypnea.
These diseases and conditions include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pneumothorax, which is a collapsed lung
- a pulmonary embolism, which is a blood clot or blockage in a lung’s artery
- pulmonary fibrosis
- cystic fibrosis
- lung cancer
When a newborn has tachypnea, doctors usually call it transient tachypnea of the newborn (TTN). This tends to develop within the first 24 hours of birth.
TTN occurs because the baby’s lungs are trying to get extra oxygen.
During development in the womb, the lungs contain fluid. As a baby reaches full term, their body starts to absorb the fluid so that their lungs can prepare to breathe air after birth.
In some newborns, this fluid is not completely absorbed, resulting in rapid breathing.
TTN in newborns may also cause:
- a blue color in the face, especially in the lips and nose
- noisy breathing, including grunting or moaning sounds
- retracting of the chest while breathing
- the head to bob up and down
- flared nostrils
Doctors can treat TTN in the hospital with extra oxygen, and the baby may need care in a neonatal intensive care unit.
TTN usually resolves quickly with the right medical care. Babies born very prematurely may require a longer hospital stay as their lungs continue to develop.
Children who attend daycare from an early age tend to catch more of these illnesses before they are 4 years old, according to some research from 2009. However, compared to other children, this group may have may have fewer airway-related symptoms as they get older.
If a caregiver notices rapid breathing, a blue tint to the skin, or pulling in of the chest, they should seek medical attention. The child may need treatment to open the airways or otherwise increase levels of oxygen.
The doctor may measure the child’s oxygen levels or order a chest X-ray to check for pneumonia. They will also consider any other symptoms when determining the cause of the rapid breathing. A child may need to receive extra oxygen in the hospital.
Tachypnea can be the body’s way of cooling down because of a fever or a hot environment.
If a person becomes overheated because of environmental factors, doctors call this a heat emergency.
Tachypnea is just one symptom of overheating. Others include:
- muscle cramps
- extreme thirst
- a headache
- fainting or unconsciousness
- nausea or vomiting
- a high body temperature
- a lack of sweating, even though the person feels hot
Some of these symptoms suggest a risk of heatstroke, which is a medical emergency. Anyone who suspects that a person has heatstroke should seek emergency medical aid.
A fever alongside tachypnea is not always a cause for alarm, as these symptoms can result from mild illnesses. However, caregivers of young children should always speak with a pediatrician if the child has a fever or tachypnea. This is to rule out any serious problems.
If the child is also wheezing, retracting their chest, or if they have blueish lips or fingers, seek medical care right away.
Sepsis is the immune system’s extreme response to an illness or infection.
When the immune system senses an infection, it sends chemicals into the blood. These cause inflammation throughout the body and can interfere with blood flow to vital organs.
Sepsis may be the cause tachypnea if a person also has:
- had a recent illness or infection, such as pneumonia or a urinary tract infection
- a fever above 101°F
- a fast heart rate
Groups with a higher risk of sepsis include:
- young children
- people with other medical conditions
- people with weakened immune systems
- people over the age of 65
Anyone with symptoms of sepsis should receive emergency medical care because sepsis is life-threatening.
The body maintains a balance of acid in the blood, and if the level is too high, a person may breathe rapidly. This is the body’s way of getting rid of carbon dioxide, which can cause higher acid levels.
Health conditions that can increase the level of acid in the blood include:
- diabetic ketoacidosis, which most often occurs in people with type 1 diabetes
- lactic acidosis, which may result from another illness, such as sepsis, cancer, or heart disease
- hepatic encephalopathy, which can result from advanced liver disease
If a person has a medical condition such as diabetes, heart disease, liver disease, or cancer and is breathing rapidly, seek emergency medical care.
- intense fear
- a fast heartbeat
- dizziness or lightheadedness
- chills or sweating
- tightness in the chest
The tachypnea usually subsides when the panic attack is over.
A panic attack can happen to anyone, including those without a diagnosed mental health condition.
Knowing how to deal with a panic attack and seeking treatment can help a person cope with symptoms and improve their quality of life.
The National Institute of Mental Health state that, without treatment, panic disorders may lead to other mental health disorders.
Treatment options for tachypnea vary widely.
If a doctor is not already aware of the underlying cause, they will conduct tests, look at a person’s medical history, and consider other symptoms.
Some of the checks may involve:
- listening to the breathing with a stethoscope
- measuring oxygen levels with a pulse oximetry clamp on the finger
- blood tests to check for acid levels
- a CT scan of the chest
- chest X-rays
Once the doctor determines the probable cause, they may begin treatment. People who have asthma or COPD may receive an inhaled medicine that dilates, or expands, the airways.
People who have a panic disorder may be able to treat their tachypnea at home. However, they should discuss their experience with a medical professional.
Tachypnea can be frightening, but it does not always signal a serious problem.
People should not try to treat tachypnea at home. The causes vary widely, and some require immediate medical care.
The best course of action is to seek medical attention right away to determine the cause and ensure prompt treatment.