The Causes, Symptoms, and Diagnosis of Tachypnea

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Tachypnea happens when you breathe more rapidly than normal. A normal respiratory rate can vary depending on age and activity. For most adults, it is usually between 12 and 20 breaths per minute while at rest.

Hyperpnea describes rapid, deep breathing, while tachypnea refers to rapid, shallow breathing.

This article looks at the potential causes of tachypnea, as well as the medical conditions in which it may occur.

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Symptoms

Tachypnea may occur with other symptoms, such as:

  • Dyspnea: shortness of breath and the sensation that you can't get enough air
  • Cyanosis: blue-tinged fingers and lips
  • Retracting: sucking in of the chest muscles with breathing

Tachypnea may also occur without any obvious symptoms. This is common when it is related to conditions like:

  • Metabolic imbalances
  • Central nervous system conditions

Tachypnea vs. Dyspnea

Some people with tachypnea may feel very short of breath. Others may not notice any breathing difficulty at all.

Dyspnea refers to the sensation of shortness of breath.

Dyspnea can occur with a normal breathing rate, a high breathing rate, or a low breathing rate. It can also occur with both a shallow breathing pattern or a deep breathing pattern.

Causes of Tachypnea

There are both physiological causes of tachypnea and pathological causes.

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This video has been medically reviewed by Sanja Jelic, MD.

Physiological Causes

A physiological cause refers to the body's normal ability to correct an abnormal condition. Tachypnea is not in itself an abnormal bodily response. Rather, it is a normal response to something abnormal happening in the body.

Tachypnea can be caused by three primary physiological processes:

  • An imbalance between respiratory gases: A low oxygen level in the blood is called hypoxemia. An increased level of carbon dioxide in the blood is called hypercapnia. Both of these can cause tachypnea.
  • An acid-base imbalance: When the body senses that the blood is too acidic, it blows carbon dioxide out of the lungs in an attempt to rid the body of acid. This can also cause tachypnea.
  • A fever: When you have a fever, your breathing becomes more rapid as your body tries to release heat.

In these examples, tachypnea is not abnormal. Instead, it is how the body compensates for an abnormality.

Pathological Causes

A pathological cause is not an effort to restore balance in the body. Instead, it is the opposite.

For example, you may have shallow, rapid breathing as a reaction to anxiety or fear. This isn't something your body does to restore balance.

Recap

Tachypnea can happen when your body tries to correct something abnormal, such as an imbalance of carbon dioxide and oxygen. It can also happen as a reaction to something external, like anxiety or fear.

Conditions That May Result in Tachypnea

A wide range of medical conditions can result in tachypnea. These may include:

In people who are hospitalized, tachypnea can be a sign that pneumonia is developing. This symptom often occurs before other obvious signs of pneumonia.

Tachypnea and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer may cause tachypnea in a few different ways. Damage to the lungs can disrupt the normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Scarring, such as with lung cancer surgery, may also cause a decreased ability to draw in oxygen.

Chemotherapy-induced anemia can worsen tachypnea. When there are fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen, breathing becomes more rapid in an attempt to correct this.

Diagnosing Tachypnea

The diagnosis of tachypnea will vary depending age, other medical problems, current medications, and other symptoms. Some diagnostic tools may include:

  • Oximetry: A "clip" may be placed on your finger to estimate the amount of oxygen in your blood.
  • Arterial blood gases (ABGs): These measure oxygen level, carbon dioxide content, and the pH of your blood. The pH can be helpful in looking for problems with your body's metabolic processes. If the pH is low, tests may be done to look for causes such as high levels of acid in the blood and liver problems.
  • Chest X-ray: An X-ray can quickly find some causes of tachypnea, such as a collapsed lung.
  • Chest computerized tomography (CT): This may be done to look for lung diseases or tumors.
  • Pulmonary function tests: These are very helpful when looking for conditions like COPD and asthma.
  • Glucose: A blood sugar test is often done to rule out or confirm diabetic ketoacidosis, when your body produces too many blood acids called ketones.
  • Electrolytes: Sodium and potassium levels can help evaluate some of the causes of tachypnea.
  • Hemoglobin: A complete blood count and hemoglobin test may be done to look for evidence of anemia and infections.
  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): An EKG can look for evidence of a heart attack or abnormal heart rhythms.
  • VQ scan: This test measures how air moves in and out of your lungs. It also measures blood flow in the lungs. It is often done if there is a possibility that a blood clot is blocking one of the arteries that brings blood to your lung.
  • Brain magnetic resonance imaging (MRI): If no obvious cause of tachypnea is found, a brain MRI may be helpful. This can help rule out brain abnormalities such as tumors.
  • Toxicology screen: Many drugs can cause tachypnea, including prescription, over-the-counter, and illegal drugs. In emergency settings, a toxicology screen is often done if the cause of tachypnea is unknown.

Recap

Doctors can use a number of diagnostic tools to find the cause of tachypnea. These may include various imaging scans and blood tests.

How Tachypnea Is Treated

Treatment for tachypnea depends on the underlying cause.

For example, if your tachypnea is due to asthma or COPD, your healthcare provider may prescribe an inhaled medicine, such as a bronchodilator or epinephrine. The medication rapidly dilates the alveoli in your lungs so that more oxygen can reach them.

If your tachypnea is due to pneumonia or another respiratory infection, resolving the infection should put a stop to the tachypnea. This may entail antibiotics if the infection is bacterial, and supportive care if the infection is viral.

If your tachypnea is triggered by anxiety, finding ways to manage your anxiety may prevent tachypnea in the future. Counseling, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques are all helpful options to consider.

Summary

Tachypnea describes abnormally rapid breathing. It is not the same as dyspnea, where you feel as if you're not getting enough air.

You may experience tachypnea because your body is trying to correct something abnormal that is happening in your body. It could also be caused by something external, such as fear or anxiety.

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3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Park SB, Khattar D. Tachypnea. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island, Fla: StatPearls Publishing; 2021.

  2. U.S. National Library of Medicine MedlinePlus. Rapid shallow breathing.

  3. Williams AC, Grant M, Tiep B, Kim JY, Hayter J. Dyspnea management in early stage lung cancer: a palliative perspective. J Hosp Palliat Nurs. 2012;14(5):341–342. doi:10.1097/NJH.0b013e31825e4250

Additional Reading
  • Kasper DL, Fauci AS, Hauser SL. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine. New York: Mc Graw Hill education. Print.

  • Kumar V, Abbas AK, Aster JC. Robbins and Cotran Pathologic Basis of Disease. Philadelphia: Elsevier-Saunders. Print.