What is tachypnea?
Tachypnea (pronounced “tuh-KIP-nee-uh”) or tachypneic breathing is rapid, shallow breathing. If your breath rate gets fast but then returns to normal it’s called transient tachypnea. Several medical conditions cause tachypnea.
Tachypnea can affect both infants and adults. It’s most common among infants who were born early (preterm) or among adults with respiratory conditions like asthma and COPD.
You normally experience rapid breathing when exercising or participating in a strenuous activity like running. Tachypnea can also happen when your body is at rest.
What does tachypnea look and feel like?
Tachypnea can cause:
- A blue or gray color to your skin, nails and/or lips.
- Chest pain.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Feeling like you can’t get enough air.
- Feeling short of breath.
Tachypnea can be a sign of a medical emergency. If you or your baby has trouble breathing, call 911 or visit the emergency room immediately.
How do I know if I’m breathing too fast?
You can check your breathing rate at home by counting how many breaths you take per minute. The normal breathing rate for an infant is between 40 to 60 breaths per minute. Adults have a normal breathing rate of 12 to 25 breaths per minute at rest (no activity).
Transient tachypnea in a newborn occurs if your baby has a respiratory rate of more than 60 breaths per minute. In adults, you could experience tachypnea if you take more than 25 breaths per minute at rest.
What are the most common causes of tachypnea?
Several medical conditions cause tachypnea as a symptom, including:
- Allergic reactions.
- Anxiety or panic disorder.
- Blood clots.
- Carbon monoxide poisoning.
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Diabetic ketoacidosis.
- Pleural effusion.
- Pulmonary embolism.
Newborn causes of tachypnea
Before your baby is born, their lungs are filled with fluid. During labor, hormones cause your baby’s air sacs (alveoli) in their lungs to absorb fluid. Most of that fluid releases from your baby’s lungs during vaginal delivery and enters cells that line your baby’s air sacs. If this absorption process happens too slowly, the excess fluid in your baby’s lungs causes tachypnea.
Care and Treatment
How is tachypnea treated?
A healthcare provider may administer oxygen through a mask or a tube placed in your nostrils to treat tachypnea. This treatment is common among younger children and infants.
Treatment for tachypnea for older children and adults usually involves taking slow deep breaths to stop hyperventilation. To do this, you can breathe using your diaphragm while slowly breathing in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth or nose. This breathing technique can help you relax by encouraging your lungs to fill up with air and expand completely.
If tachypnea causes severe respiratory distress, seek emergency medical treatment. This might include:
- Pressurized oxygen via a continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machine.
- Air from a ventilator machine that moves air in and out of your lungs.
Depending on the cause of tachypnea, treatment for the underlying cause resolves the symptom and prevents it from recurring. This type of treatment could include:
- Taking medicine like antibiotics, anticoagulants or antihistamines.
- Using an inhaler (bronchodilators).
- Participating in cognitive behavioral therapy for anxiety.
How long does tachypnea last?
Infants usually recover from transient tachypnea within two to three days. After treatment for the cause of tachypnea, older children and adults recover quickly. Tachypnea can come back if the underlying cause isn’t treated.
How can tachypnea be prevented?
Not all causes of tachypnea can be prevented. You can take steps to reduce your risk of tachypnea by:
- Avoiding allergens.
- Exercising regularly to build endurance.
- Avoiding areas with smoke or high pollution.
- Placing a carbon monoxide detector in your home and changing the batteries every six months.
- Talking with a mental health professional to treat anxiety.
- Treating or managing any underlying conditions.
When to Call the Doctor
When should tachypnea be treated by a healthcare provider?
Contact your healthcare provider if you experience symptoms of tachypnea. Visit the emergency room if you have:
- Chest pain.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Rapid breathing (that you’ve never experienced before).
- Blue or gray skin, nails and lips.
Most cases of tachypnea aren’t life-threatening, but not getting enough oxygen can harm your body and affect your brain and heart function if the symptom persists without treatment.
A note from Cleveland Clinic
It’s important to take tachypnea symptoms seriously. If you feel that you’re breathing too fast, count your breaths per minute. Try to regulate your breathing by taking air in through your nose and exhaling through your mouth. As a new parent, be your newborn’s advocate, as they aren’t able to express their symptoms in the same way an adult could. Contact a healthcare provider if you have symptoms, so they can help you feel better.
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