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Rapid shallow breathing

Definition

A normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is 8 to 16 breaths per minute. For an infant, a normal rate is up to 44 breaths per minute.

Tachypnea is the term that your doctor uses to describe your breathing if it is too fast, especially if you have fast, shallow breathing from a lung disease or other medical cause.

The term hyperventilation is usually used if you are taking rapid, deep breaths. This can be due to lung disease or because of anxiety or panic. The terms are sometimes used interchangeably.

Alternative Names

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

Causes

Shallow, rapid breathing has many possible medical causes, including:

  • Asthma
  • Blood clot in an artery in the lung
  • Choking
  • Chronic obstructive pulmonary COPD and other chronic lung diseases
  • Heart failure
  • Infection in the smallest air passages of the lungs in children (bronchiolitis)
  • Pneumonia or other lung infection
  • Transient tachypnea of the newborn

Home Care

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

If you have asthma or COPD, use your inhaler medicines as prescribed by your doctor. You may still need to be checked by a health care provider right away. Your doctor will explain when it is important to go to the emergency room.

When to Contact a Medical Professional

Call 911 or go to the emergency room if you are breathing rapidly and you have:

  • Bluish or grayish color to the skin, nails, gums, lips, or the area around the eyes (cyanosis)
  • Chest pain
  • Chest that is pulling in with each breath
  • Fever
  • Labored or difficult breathing
  • Never had rapid breathing before
  • Symptoms that are getting more severe

What to Expect at Your Office Visit

The health care provider will do a thorough exam of your heart, lungs, abdomen, and head and neck.

Tests that may be ordered include:

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.

References

Kraft M. Approach to the patient with respiratory diseases. In: Goldman L, Schafer Al, eds. Goldman's Cecil Medicine. 24th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Elsevier Saunders; 2011:chap 83.


Review Date: 5/11/2013
Reviewed By: David C. Dugdale, III, MD, Professor of Medicine, Division of General Medicine, Department of Medicine, University of Washington School of Medicine. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Bethanne Black, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial Team.
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