Bradypnea

Bradypnea is an abnormally slow breathing rate. It’s a symptom of an underlying health condition, which may include hypothyroidism, head injuries or opioid or heavy alcohol use. Associated symptoms may include dizziness, confusion and feeling tired. A healthcare provider can diagnose the underlying cause and recommend the most appropriate treatment.

Overview

What is bradypnea?

Bradypnea (pronounced “bray-DIP-nee-uh”) is abnormally slow breathing for your age and activity level. It’s a symptom that may indicate a health condition.

How do I know if I’m breathing too slowly?

You can check your breathing rate at home by counting how many breaths you take per minute. Typical respiratory (breathing) rates are:

Age in Years
Infant to 1
Breaths per Minute
30 to 60
1 to 3
Breaths per Minute
24 to 40
3 to 6
Breaths per Minute
22 to 34
6 to 12
Breaths per Minute
18 to 30
12 to 18
Breaths per Minute
12 to 16
18 to 50
Breaths per Minute
12 to 20
50 and up
Breaths per Minute
13 to 20

If you have a breathing rate that’s below the average breaths per minute, you may have bradypnea.

What does a low breathing rate mean?

A low breathing rate means your body may not be getting enough oxygen. The cells in your body need oxygen to break down food and turn it into energy. A lack of oxygen may cause other symptoms.

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Possible Causes

What are the symptoms of bradypnea?

Bradypnea may cause low oxygen levels. Symptoms of low oxygen levels include:

  • Dizziness.
  • Feeling extremely tired (fatigue).
  • Tiring quickly during physical activity.
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea).
  • Weakness.
  • Chest pains.
  • Confusion.

What can cause bradypnea?

Many conditions may cause bradypnea. Some common bradypnea causes include:

  • Hypothyroidism. Hypothyroidism is a condition in which your thyroid gland doesn’t make enough thyroid hormones. It can affect your metabolism as well as your ability to breathe.
  • Head injuries. Your brain — specifically areas around your lower brainstem and spinal cord — tells your lungs and breathing muscles to breathe. Head injuries and other conditions that affect your brain, including tumors or blood clots, may prevent your brain from telling your lungs and muscles to breathe.
  • Opioids. Opioids are a class of drugs that healthcare providers prescribe to manage pain. They affect the opioid receptors in parts of your body systems that help regulate your body functions, including breathing.
  • Alcohol. Regular or heavy alcohol consumption can slow your respiratory rate.
  • Toxins. Inhaling certain toxins can affect your ability to breathe. These include carbon monoxide and sodium azide (which helps inflate automobile airbags).
  • Electrolyte imbalance. Electrolytes are minerals that have a positive or a negative charge when they dissolve in water. Too much or too little water in your body can cause an electrolyte imbalance, which can affect your breathing.
  • Stress and anxiety. Some studies indicate that long-term stress and anxiety may cause breathing dysfunctions, including bradypnea.
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What are the complications of bradypnea?

Bradypnea complications depend on its cause. Without treatment, the most serious complications may include:

  • Fainting (syncope). If you faint, you temporarily lose consciousness. The most common cause is a reduction of blood flow and oxygen to your brain.
  • Low oxygen levels in your body tissue (hypoxia). Long periods of hypoxia can damage your organs, especially your brain and heart.
  • Respiratory acidosis. Respiratory acidosis is when you have increased acids in your blood because your lungs can’t remove all the carbon dioxide (CO2) that your body makes.
  • Respiratory failure. Respiratory failure makes breathing difficult or impossible without supplemental oxygen or mechanical ventilation.
  • Death. In the most serious cases, bradypnea may be fatal.

Care and Treatment

How is bradypnea diagnosed?

Bradypnea is a symptom of an underlying condition. If you think you have a low breathing rate, schedule an appointment with a healthcare provider as soon as possible. The healthcare provider will diagnose the underlying condition by asking about your medical history and conducting a physical examination. They may ask if you have any other symptoms and recommend testing to help.

What tests will be done?

Your provider may recommend pulmonary function testing to measure your respiratory rate and how much air goes into and out of your lungs.

They may also recommend blood tests to help confirm a diagnosis. During a blood test, your provider will use a small needle (slightly smaller than the size of a standard earring post) to withdraw a small amount of blood from a vein in your arm. The blood sample goes to a lab, where providers will examine and test it.

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How is bradypnea treated?

Treatments can vary according to the underlying cause of your slow breathing. Until your provider diagnoses the cause, they may recommend oxygen therapy to help you get enough oxygen to stay healthy.

Can bradypnea be prevented?

For some bradypnea causes, you may be able to lower your risk.

  • Limit your alcohol consumption. Avoid drinking more than the recommended amounts — fewer than four drinks per day for women and people assigned female at birth (AFAB) and fewer than five drinks per day for men and people assigned male at birth (AMAB). If you or a loved one has alcohol use disorder, it’s important to seek medical care. Talk to a provider about treatment options.
  • Seek out opioid alternatives. If you’re experiencing pain, talk to a healthcare provider about non-opioid treatments for pain, such as nonsteroidal anti-inflammatory drugs (NSAIDs), acetaminophen (Tylenol®) or amine reuptake inhibitors (ARIs). If you or a loved one has opioid use disorder, it’s important to seek medical care. Talk to a provider about treatment options.
  • Prevent carbon monoxide poisoning. Have a heating, venting and air conditioning (HVAC) professional inspect your fuel-burning appliances each year. Install carbon monoxide detectors on every floor of your home and replace the batteries every six months. Don’t let your automobile with a running engine idle in a garage or other enclosed area.
  • Protect your brain from injuries. Helmets, safety restraints (including seat belts) and other protective equipment help protect your brain from dangerous impacts.
  • Control or reduce stress and anxiety. Relaxation activities — including meditation, yoga and breathing exercises, as well as mental health awareness, medications and counseling — can help reduce stress and anxiety.

However, you can’t prevent all bradypnea causes. In these cases, talk to a healthcare provider. They can work with you to develop the best treatment plan.

What can I expect if I have bradypnea?

Not all cases of bradypnea are serious, but not getting enough oxygen can damage your organs and may even be fatal without treatment.

When to Call the Doctor

When should I see my healthcare provider?

Contact a healthcare provider if you have symptoms of bradypnea, including a low breathing rate.

When should I go to the ER?

Go to the emergency room if you have:

  • A head injury from an automobile collision or fall.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Discolored (blue, gray or whitish) skin, nails or lips.

What questions should I ask my healthcare provider?

  • What’s my breathing rate?
  • What are the possible causes of my bradypnea?
  • Are the possible causes serious?
  • What treatment do you recommend?
  • Do I need oxygen therapy?

Additional Common Questions

What is the difference between tachypnea and bradypnea?

Tachypnea is quick, shallow breathing, whereas bradypnea is abnormally slow breathing.

What is the difference between bradypnea and hypoventilation?

Hypoventilation is when ventilation in your lungs is too low to properly remove CO2 from your lungs. Hypoventilation causes include bradypnea.

Is seven breaths per minute normal?

No, seven breaths per minute while resting isn’t a typical respiration rate for any age group.

Is slow breathing healthy?

Slow breathing is a type of controlled breathing that people use to relax, often in conjunction with yoga or meditation. There may be some health benefits to slow breathing techniques. However, there isn’t enough research to say for sure.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Bradypnea is a symptom in which your breathing rate is lower than expected for your age and activity level. If you think you’re breathing too slowly, count your breaths per minute. If you or someone you know has a low breathing rate and you aren’t sure of its cause, contact a healthcare provider. They can help determine the cause and work with you to develop the best treatment plan.

Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 03/17/2023.

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