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.

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.

A person with tachypnea rubbing their hands together while jogging.Share on Pinterest
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Tachypnea involves shallow, rapid breathing. A 2021 article states that adults typically take 12–20 breaths per minute. Tachypnea occurs when a person takes more than 20 breaths per minute.

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 may be too high. The body tries to correct this by breathing more quickly.

Certain illnesses affecting the lungs can reduce oxygen levels in the blood or raise the level of carbon dioxide, causing tachypnea.

These conditions include:

Transient tachypnea refers to a temporary fast breathing rate in newborns. Symptoms usually begin shortly after birth. A 2021 article notes that transient tachypnea affects approximately 10% of babies born at 33–34 weeks and 5% born at 35–36 weeks. It occurs in less than 1% of newborns born after that.

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).

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention states that RSV is a common virus, and most people recover within 1–2 weeks. However, it can cause severe illness in infants. RSV can lead to bronchiolitis, which is the inflammation of the small airways in the lung, and pneumonia.

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.

Heatstroke

Tachypnea is just one symptom of heatstroke. Others include:

Heatstroke is a medical emergency. A person should seek immediate medical attention if they experience any signs or symptoms.

Fever

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 also experiences:

  • a fever above 101°F
  • a fast heart rate
  • chills
  • confusion

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 seek emergency medical care as sepsis can be life threatening.

According to a 2021 article, too much carbon dioxide in the blood can cause a buildup of acid. When this occurs, the brain sends a signal to increase breathing to get rid of carbon dioxide.

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 may also cause:

  • intense fear
  • trembling
  • a fast heartbeat
  • dizziness or lightheadedness
  • nausea
  • 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.

Learn more about how to stop a panic attack.

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 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, 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.