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Tachypnea- Causes, Symptoms, Diagnosis, and Management

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Tachypnea refers to rapid, shallow breathing and is always a definitive sign that something is wrong in the body for which the body is trying to compensate.

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Published At November 24, 2022
Reviewed AtMay 11, 2023

Introduction:

Tachypnea is a condition that refers to an increased breathing rate that results from inadequate oxygen supply or an excess amount of carbon dioxide in the body. The excess carbon dioxide in the blood leads to a more acidic nature of the blood. In response to this, as a compensatory mechanism, the brain signals the respiratory system to increase the respiratory rate to correct the acid-base imbalance and return to the normal range.

The normal respiratory rate for an adult is 12-20 breaths per minute at rest. Tachypnea occurs when the respiratory rate is more than 20 breaths per minute. However, newborns have a higher respiratory rate of more than 60 breaths per minute than adults. It is not essentially due to a pathological condition; exercise can also induce tachypnea.

Tachypnea can often be confused with the term dyspnea. Tachypnea refers to increased or rapid breathing, whereas dyspnea refers to shortness of breath or difficulty breathing. The latter can be seen in chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD), asthma, interstitial lung diseases and pneumonia, pulmonary fibrosis, and pulmonary embolism.

What Are the Physiological Conditions That Can Cause Tachypnea?

Physiological conditions that can cause tachypnea are:

  • Fever.

  • Newborns have a higher respiratory rate.

  • Exercise can cause a temporary increase in respiratory rate.

  • Pregnancy.

  • Hyperventilation: It is characterized by rapid breathing. Rapid breathing may cause an immediate reduction in carbon dioxide levels, as seen in pain and anxiety or panic attacks.

  • Drug overdose such as Aspirin or salicylate poisoning.

  • Usage of stimulants and marijuana.

What Are the Pathological Conditions That Can Cause Tachypnea?

Conditions that can cause tachypnea are:

  • Pulmonary Causes:

    • Chronic obstructive lung disease (COPD).

    • Cystic fibrosis.

    • Asthma.

    • Pneumonia.

    • Pulmonary fibrosis.

    • Pulmonary embolism.

    • Pneumothorax.

  • Cardiac Causes:

    • Congestive cardiac failure.

    • Congenital cyanotic heart diseases.

    • Structural defect of the heart.

    • Myocardial infarction.

  • Metabolic Acidosis is a condition characterized by an excess of acid in the blood. It occurs for two reasons: the body produces an excess amount of acid, or the kidneys cannot remove the excess acid from the body. Conditions in which metabolic Acidosis is seen are:

    • Lactic Acidosis is due to excess lactic acid in the body. It is produced by the body, which breaks down carbohydrates to form energy when oxygen levels are low.

    • Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when excess ketone bodies accumulate in uncontrolled type 1 diabetes cases.

    • Hepatic encephalopathy.

  • Central Nervous SystemRelated: Brain abnormalities such as brain tumors.

  • Anemia.

  • Hyperthyroidism.

  • Sepsis ultimately leads to multi-organ failure.

What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Tachypnea?

Signs and Symptoms include-

  • Chest pain.

  • Cyanosis or bluish color of the skin and mucous membrane, especially found in the fingertips, ear lobules, and lips.

  • Lightheadedness.

  • Fatigue and drowsiness.

  • Muscle twitches.

  • Flushed skin.

  • Elevated blood pressure.

However, tachypnea of more than 60 breaths per minute is caused by fluid retention in the lungs within the first 24 hours; a condition known as transient tachypnea of newborns (TTN) can have different signs and symptoms such as:

  • Chest retraction.

  • Grunting sounds while exhaling.

  • Flaring nostrils.

  • Head bobbing.

  • Bluish discoloration around the perioral areas.

What Are the Diagnostic Tests?

The following diagnostic tests can be carried out as

  • Arterial Blood Gas (ABG) Analysis: It includes the measurement of arterial oxygen, carbon dioxide, and pH. The calculation can be done with the help of the Henderson-Hasselbach equation, where pH is directly proportional to bicarbonate ions and indirectly proportional to carbon dioxide. The normal partial pressure of carbon dioxide is 35-45mmHg; more than 45mmHg is Acidosis, whereas less than 35mmHg is alkalosis. The normal partial pressure of bicarbonate ions ranges between 22-26mmHg, where more than 26 is considered alkalosis and less than 22 is Acidosis. If the blood pH is acidic, it may indicate lactic Acidosis, diabetic ketoacidosis, or hepatic encephalopathy.

  • Pulse Oximetry: It is a probe that checks the oxygen saturation level of the blood. It is attached to the fingertips of the patient and continuously monitored on the screen.

  • Echocardiogram (EKG): An ultrasound helps diagnose the reason for tachypnea by either showing abnormal heart rhythm or reasons for a heart attack.

  • Imaging: Like chest X-ray can identify pulmonary causes of tachypnea such as pneumothorax, cystic fibrosis, and pneumonia. A computed tomography (CT) scan can help diagnose infections, certain pulmonary pathology, or potential malignancies.

  • Complete Blood Count (CBC): Look for signs of infection and anemia, which can cause tachypnea.

  • Ventilation - Perfusion (V/Q) Scan: It uses a radioactive material that helps diagnose lung conditions such as pulmonary embolism, a blood clot within the lungs.

  • Blood Sugar Test: Increased blood sugar levels may be useful to rule out diabetic ketoacidosis.

  • Toxicology Screen: A toxicology Screen is done in case of a drug overdose.

How to Manage Tachypnea?

The management of tachypnea depends upon the underlying cause.

  • In the case of newborns with transient tachypnea, although it improves by itself, and if it persists, the treatment includes:

    • Measuring the blood oxygen levels and providing supplemental oxygen and continuous positive airway pressure to prevent the lung from collapsing.

  • In the case of asthma and COPD, the treatment includes the administration of bronchodilators and corticosteroids to open up the airways and the alveoli and reduce the inflammation of the airways.

  • In the case of pneumonia, antibiotics are indicated to treat bacterial infections.

Conclusion:

Tachypnea is rapid, shallow breathing. It is not always an indicator of serious illness, as seen in the case of pregnancy or after strenuous physical activity. Still, if a pathological condition exists, then it is a definitive sign that something is wrong in the body for which the body is trying to compensate. A combination of physical examination and laboratory investigations is of utmost importance in diagnosing tachypnea. Collaborative interprofessional teamwork is required for an integrated and evidence-based approach to the treatment leading to optimal patient care and outcomes.

Frequently Asked Questions

1.

What Is the Difference Between Dyspnea And Tachypnea?

 
Dyspnea indicates the sensation of shortness of breath, while tachypnea indicates rapid shallow breathing. Tachypnea can be mistaken for a few other conditions that have similar symptoms. Tachypnea can also be defined as the respiratory rate above the normal range.

2.

Are 24 Breaths per Minute Normal?

The normal respiratory rate ranges from 12 to 20 breaths per minute for a normal adult, the respiratory rate or breath rate above 25 breaths per minute or below 12 breaths per minute is considered to be abnormal. An individual respiratory rate is the number of breaths a person takes in a minute.

3.

What Are the Causes of Tachypnea?

 
Various factors are linked to the cause of tachypnea, including allergic reactions,asthma, panic disorder, anxiety, blood clots, carbon monoxide poisoning, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, metabolic disorders such s diabetic ketoacidosis, pleural effusion, and various other conditions.

4.

What Does It Mean When Breathing Is Shallow?

Shallow breathing is associated with various underlying medical conditions. A person with shallow breathing may have blood clots, especially in the lung artery, that obstruct normal breathing, asthma, chest congestion, and choking. Shallow breathing can sometimes result in rapid breaths.

5.

Is Shallow Breathing Serious?

Shallow breathing is considered a medical emergency and cannot be treated at home. If shallow breathing is caused by asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, use inhalers or nebulizers as prescribed by the doctor. In case if the cause of shallow breathing is anxiety, then it can be treated at home.

6.

How to Treat Shallow Breathing?

Shallow breathing is a medical emergency that needs medical assistance immediately unless the cause is anxiety, where it can be treated at home. If shallow breathing is caused by asthma or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, use inhalers or nebulizers as prescribed by the doctor.

7.

What Are The Conditions That Cause Shallow Breathing?

The medical conditions include shallow breathing, asthma, blood clot in the lung's artery, choking, heart failure, bronchitis, or infection in the lungs of the bronchi, heart dysfunction, obesity, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, and interstitial lung disease.

8.

How to Diagnose For Shallow Breathing?

The diagnostic tests for shallow breathing includes chest Xray that such as pneumonia in the lungs or other problems with lung and heart disease, and an oxygen test which is also called pulse oximetry, that helps to find the level of oxygen in the blood. And electrocardiography or EKG will help to diagnose shallow breathing.

9.

Will Shallow Breathing Affect Oxygen Levels?

Shallow breathing disturbs the levels and balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide levels, which helps to keep the right amount of oxygen that takes in and the amount of carbon dioxide that goes out. Shallow breathing increases blood pressure and gradually increases an individual's heart rate.

10.

When to Worry About Shallow Breathing?

Always be careful, and if you have any symptoms of shortness of breath that is accompanied by chest pain, fainting, nausea, cyanosis or bluish tinge on skin, lips, and nails or mental alertness changes, these symptoms may be warning signs of heart attack or pulmonary embolism. The treatment of shallow breathing requires medical assistance.

11.

How Do Individuals Know if My Shortness of Breath Is Heart Related?

 
The common symptom of shortness of breath or shallow breathing is heart failure. The person may feel distressed, and cause feels smothered. They may feel difficulty in breathing or not be able to take deep or full breath Initially, this occurs with excretion, which gradually gets worsen and later occurs at rest in severe case.

12.

What Are The Causes of Shallow Slow Breathing?

The medical conditions include shallow breathing, asthma, blood clot in the lung's artery, choking, heart failure, bronchitis, or infection in the lungs of the bronchi, heart dysfunction, obesity, chronic pulmonary obstructive disease, and interstitial lung disease.pulmonary edema, stress, anxiety, and shock also cause shallow breathing.

13.

Is Stress a Cause of Shallow Breathing?

When an individual is under stress, the pattern of breathing automatically changes. The anxious person takes small short and short breaths with their shoulders instead of the diaphragm to take in air and move out air; this type of breathing disrupts the balance between the gases and leads to various severe complications.

14.

What Is the Difference Between Shortness of Breath and Shallow Breathing?

The term shallow breathing indicates shallow or less breathing or abnormal inhaling with normal exhaling.in shortness of breath, inhalation is shorter than exhalation. Both cause severe complications and disturb the air that a person usually takes in and out.

15.

How Shallow Breath Sounds Like?

Usually shallow breath sounds are seen in tachypnea which refers to or like a rapid breathing.average adults show normal breathing rate of 12 to 20 breaths per minute.the number of breaths per minute in adults can have a higher resting rate.

16.

In what way Anxiety Shallow Breathing Feel like?

People will have different levels of anxiety in different individuals. Which will affect the individual body in different ways. Faster, shallower breathing are some of the physical symptoms of anxiety, which might be experienced by an individual.
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Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar
Dr. Kaushal Bhavsar

Pulmonology (Asthma Doctors)

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