Tachypnea is a medical term referring to fast, shallow breathing that results from a lack of oxygen or too much carbon dioxide in the body. Infections, asthma, heat, and other factors can trigger it.
Tachypnea refers to rapid, shallow breathing in newborns, children, and adults. It is not a condition or disease, nor is it necessarily a sign of an underlying health problem.
A person can experience tachypnea due to benign issues, such as exercise, or it can result from underlying health conditions and illness.
This article reviews tachypnea symptoms, causes, treatment, and more.
Tachypnea involves shallow, rapid breathing. A
In newborns, doctors define tachypnea as over 60 breaths per minute.
Other signs and symptoms of tachypnea in children and adults can include:
- feeling as though they cannot get enough air
- a blue or grayish tint to the fingers or lips
- the use of chest muscles when breathing
A newborn with tachypnea may present with:
- bobbing of the head
- flared nostrils
- chest retraction
- grunting or other signs of labored breathing
The area around the mouth may also turn blue.
One reason why a person breathes faster than usual is to take in more oxygen. The oxygen level in the body may be too low, or the carbon dioxide level
Certain illnesses affecting the lungs can reduce oxygen levels in the blood or raise the level of carbon dioxide, causing tachypnea.
These conditions include:
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pneumothorax, which is a collapsed lung
- a pulmonary embolism, a blood clot or blockage in a lung’s artery
- pulmonary fibrosis
- cystic fibrosis
- lung cancer
Transient tachypnea refers to a temporary fast breathing rate in newborns. Symptoms usually begin shortly after birth. A
During development in the womb, a baby’s lungs contain fluid. As the 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, the body does not fully absorb the fluid, and the baby increases their breathing rate to compensate for the reduced oxygen absorption.
Symptoms usually resolve without treatment within 24–72 hours. However, in some cases, they may require treatment.
How a doctor treats tachypnea in a newborn will depend on several factors, including:
- the baby’s gestational age, medical history, and overall health
- their tolerance for different treatment methods
- the extent of the condition
- what doctors think the extent of the condition will be
- the parents’ preferences
Treatment typically includes:
- measuring blood oxygen levels
- supplemental oxygen
- continuous positive airway pressure
- feeding tubes to help prevent aspiration
In children, tachypnea can occur due to viral infections, such as the influenza virus or the respiratory syncytial virus (RSV).
Tachypnea can be a symptom of both bronchiolitis and pneumonia.
If a caregiver notices a child displaying rapid breathing, a blue or grayish tint to the skin, or the pulling in of the chest, they should seek medical attention. The child may need treatment to open the airways or otherwise increase oxygen levels.
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 overheating.
Tachypnea is just one symptom of heatstroke. Others
- elevated core body temperature
- sinus tachycardia
- hot, dry skin
- widened pulse pressure
- lowered blood pressure
- neurological dysfunction
- lung crackles
- low urine output
- excessive bleeding
Heatstroke is a medical emergency. A person should seek immediate medical attention if they experience any signs or symptoms.
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 to rule out other conditions.
If the child experiences wheezing, retracting their chest, or a blue or grayish tint to lips or fingers, caregivers should 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 interfere with blood flow to vital organs.
Sepsis may be the cause of tachypnea if a person has had a recent illness or infection, such as pneumonia or a urinary tract infection, and
- a fever above 101°F
- a fast heart rate
Groups with a
- young children
- people with other medical conditions
- people with weakened immune systems
- people over the age of 65
Anyone with symptoms of sepsis should seek emergency medical care as sepsis can be life threatening.
According to a
Health conditions that can increase the level of acid in the blood include:
- diabetic ketoacidosis, which most often occurs in people living 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, they should seek emergency medical care as soon as possible.
A person who has a panic disorder, generalized anxiety disorder, or a phobia-related disorder may experience tachypnea during a panic attack.
Panic attacks can occur without warning and
- 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 people cope with symptoms and improve their quality of life.
Treatment options for tachypnea vary widely. Differences in treatment occur because a doctor needs to treat the underlying cause of the tachypnea.
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
- listening to the breathing with a stethoscope
- measuring oxygen levels with a pulse oximetry clamp on the finger
- blood tests to check for acid, glucose, blood, or electrolyte levels
- a CT scan of the chest
- MRI of the brain
- poison screening
- pulmonary function tests
- chest X-rays
Once a doctor determines the probable cause, they may begin treatment. People who have asthma or COPD may receive an inhaled medication that dilates, or expands, the airways.
If a doctor diagnoses bacterial pneumonia, a person may receive antibiotics. However, as the American Lung Association notes, viral pneumonia does not respond to antibiotics and may require other treatments, such as antiviral medications.
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.