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Tachypnea: Causes, Symptoms, Treatment

What is Tachypnea?

Tachypnea is a medical term for fast and shallow breathing. It generally occurs in newborns and results due to excess of carbon dioxide and lack of enough oxygen.

Sometimes, Tachypnea also occurs as a result of certain other health conditions. In fact, Tachypnea is considered to be a symptom rather than a disease itself. In newborns, as the lungs are still developing, they tend to develop Tachypnea shortly after birth. In cases of children, they tend to get Tachypnea after a viral infection affecting the respiratory system, most commonly bronchitis or asthma.[1,2,3,4]

There are a variety of health conditions that results in Tachypnea including pneumonia in the initial stages. An infant of less than two months of age is said to have Tachypnea if the infant has a respiratory rate of more than 60 breaths per minute. For infants between the age of two months and one year, Tachypnea occurs when the respiratory rate is more than 50 breaths per minute and for children more than one year of age if the respiratory rate of more than 40 breaths per minute then the child is said to have Tachypnea. A child with Tachypnea will experience problems with breathing and will have a bluish tinge to the lips and nails suggesting oxygen deprivation.[1,2,3,4]

What Causes Tachypnea?

Tachypnea as stated is the medical term for rapid breathing. This generally occurs when there is shortage of oxygen supply in the body or there is excessive carbon dioxide. When this happens, the body tries to level out the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen and it does it by increasing the respiratory rate. Tachypnea generally is seen in babies and infants but sometimes adults can also develop it.[3]

The oxygen levels in the body can get depleted due to many health conditions. These conditions include initial stages of pneumonia, asthma, COPD, pulmonary fibrosis, pulmonary embolism, and cystic fibrosis

Causes of Tachypnea In Children

In cases of newborns, Tachypnea is medically termed as Transient Tachypnea of the Newborn or TTN. It generally develops within the first 24 hours of life of the infant. The primary reason for this is the lungs of the baby try to get in more oxygen

During development of the fetus, the lungs contain fluid that gets absorbed in the body as and when the pregnancy reaches term so that the lungs are prepared to function normally using the air from the atmosphere after birth. However, this fluid is not absorbed completely in some cases resulting in Tachypnea in some newborns

In addition to rapid breathing, infants with Transient Tachypnea of Newborn will also have a bluish tinge to their face, lips, and nose. The baby may grunt or moan when breathing. The chest will retract inwards excessively when breathing. Transient Tachypnea of Newborn is usually treated by providing the baby with some extra oxygen in a hospital setting. The baby will be admitted to the NICU for appropriate treatment for Tachypnea. With proper treatment, Transient Tachypnea of Newborn resolves very quickly. If the baby is premature then the hospital stay may be longer than normal

Viral infections: This is also one of the causes for Tachypnea in children. Conditions like flu, bronchitis, RSV infection all can cause Tachypnea. These conditions are more common in children who stay for most of the time in daycare centers before they are 4 years of age. However, as they get old the chances of this group of children developing respiratory illnesses goes down significantly

Immediate medical attention is needed if a parent or caregivers note that their child is having problems with breathing or there is a bluish tinge to their faces and lips. The physician will check the oxygen levels of the baby and take radiographs of the chest to look for presence of pneumonia. Once a cause for Tachypnea is identified treatment will be given to the baby accordingly to normalize the breathing again

Causes of Tachypnea In Adults:

In cases of adults, Tachypnea can occur not only due to respiratory illnesses but also due to other conditions like overheating, panic, and anxiety disorders

Overheating: Increased respiration is the normal way of the body to cool down especially in hot weather conditions. This is medically termed as heat emergency. Other symptoms of this condition aside from Tachypnea include dizziness, muscle cramping, problems with concentration, headache, feeling thirsty, fainting, and sweating along with nausea and vomiting. In extreme cases, the person may have seizures. Some of these symptoms are also seen with a heatstroke which is an emergent medical condition and requires a visit to the emergency room

Sepsis: This is the body’s natural reaction to an infection or illness. Once the body identifies an infection, chemicals are released in the blood to counter it. This results in inflammation throughout the body and interferes with adequate blood flow to the vital organs. This results in the person having Tachypnea

In cases of sepsis being the cause of increased respirations, the person will have a recent history of an illness or infection. The Tachypnea will also be accompanied by fever and tachycardia. The person will also complain of confusion and chills. Sepsis is most common in children or adults with premorbid conditions. People who have a compromised immune system are also at risk for developing sepsis. People who are above the age of 60 and have symptoms suggestive of sepsis should go to the nearest emergency room immediately as it is potentially life-threatening.

Increased Acid Levels In Blood: This is yet another cause of Tachypnea in adults. Normally, there is a balance of acid levels maintained by the body in the blood. However, there are times when this balance is lost and the levels of acids increase in the blood. This usually happens when there is increased amount of carbon dioxide in the body. Tachypnea occurs when the body starts to get rid of this excess carbon dioxide

There are also certain medical conditions that increase the levels of acid in the blood. These conditions include diabetic ketoacidosis seen in people with type-1 diabetes. Lactic acidosis also causes increased levels of acid in the blood. This occurs in people with a diagnosis of sepsis, cancer, or cardiovascular conditions. A condition called hepatic encephalopathy which is a complication of liver dysfunction also causes acid levels in the blood to rise up causing Tachypnea

Anxiety Disorder: A person with anxiety or panic disorder also often complains of increased respiratory rate of Tachypnea. This generally occurs during a panic attack. Additionally, the person will have a feeling of extreme fear of something untoward happening, tremors, tachycardia, dizziness, chest pain or tightness, and sweating.

Tachypnea in such cases generally resolves once the panic attack is taken care of. People with a diagnosis of anxiety disorder need to consult with a psychiatrist or psychologist for various treatment options including therapy and medications or both to keep their anxiety under control and have a better quality of life

What are the Symptoms of Tachypnea?

As stated, Tachypnea occurs when the levels of oxygen drop in the body and that of carbon dioxide rises. This makes the person feel extremely short of breath. The lack of adequate oxygen makes the face, lips, and nails blue suggesting oxygen depletion. Children with Tachypnea will retract their chest while breathing which is a telltale sign that the baby is not getting enough oxygen

How is Tachypnea Treated?

The treatment for Tachypnea depends on the cause and differs from individual to individual. To get to the bottom of the cause, the physician will conduct a battery of tests and obtain radiographs. The symptoms that are seen along with Tachypnea also often give the physician idea as to what may be the underlying cause. Some of the investigations will include checking the levels of oxygen and also have a look at the acid levels in the blood

In cases where asthma or COPD may be the cause then inhalers will be prescribed to open up the airways so that the patient is able to breathe normally. If bacterial pneumonia is believed to be the cause of Tachypnea then a course of antibiotics is the most preferred treatment. If pneumonia is caused due to a virus then antibiotics are considered ineffective. People with psychiatric disorders resulting in Tachypnea will need to consult with a psychiatrist or psychologist for therapy and medications to keep their anxiety in check

In conclusion, Tachypnea can be quite frightening especially for parents and caregivers whose children have it. However, in most cases the cause of it is not serious and the condition is completely treatable. Many physicians recommend people to treat Tachypnea at home itself. The causes for Tachypnea are variable and in some cases can be serious as well.[1,2,4]

If Tachypnea is caused due to overheating, increased acid levels in the blood, or sepsis, then it is recommended to go to the nearest emergency room immediately for treatment as any delay in treatment can be detrimental for the health of the person. In other cases as well, it is best to consult with a physician to identify a cause and start treatment address Tachypnea.[1,2,4]


Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Sheetal DeCaria, M.D.
Written, Edited or Reviewed By: Sheetal DeCaria, M.D. This article does not provide medical advice. See disclaimer
Last Modified On:July 4, 2021

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