Rapid shallow breathing

Alternative names
Tachypnea; Breathing - rapid and shallow; Fast shallow breathing; Respiratory rate - rapid and shallow

Definition

A normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is 8 to 16 breaths/minute. For an infant, a normal rate is up to 44 breaths/minute. Tachypnea is a medical term that your doctor would use to describe your breathing if it is too fast, particularly if you have rapid, shallow breathing due to an associated lung disease or other medical cause.

In contrast, the term hyperventilation is usually used if you are taking rapid, deep breaths because of anxiety or panic. The terms may be used interchangeably, however.

Common Causes

Shallow, rapid breathing has many potential medical causes. A partial list includes:

     
  • Asthma  
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)  
  • Chest pain  
  • Pneumonia or other lung infection  
  • Pulmonary embolism  
  • Transient tachypnea of the newborn  
  • Metabolic acidosis

Home Care

Rapid, shallow breathing should not be treated at home and is generally considered a medical emergency.

If you have asthma or COPD, then use your inhaler medications as prescribed by your doctor. You may still need to be seen right away. Your doctor will explain when it is important to go to the emergency room.

Call your health care provider if

Call your doctor right away or go to the emergency room if you are breathing rapidly, especially if you:

     
  • have chest pain  
  • have shortness of breath  
  • have a fever  
  • have never experienced rapid breathing before  
  • you do not know the cause

What to expect at your health care provider’s office

Whether you are being examined at a hospital emergency room or at your doctor’s office, the physician will do a thorough exam of your heart, lungs, abdomen, and head and neck. Tests that may be ordered include:

     
  • CBC and blood chemistries  
  • Arterial blood gas to check your oxygen level  
  • Chest x-ray  
  • ECG  
  • Ventilation/perfusion scan of your lungs

Treatment will depend on the underlying cause of the rapid breathing. Treatment may include oxygen if your oxygen level is too low and nebulized respiratory treatments if you are having an asthma attack.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised: December 7, 2012
by Sharon M. Smith, M.D.

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.