Tachypnea is rapid, fast, and shallow breathing. In this condition, a person’s respiratory rate is higher than the normal range (12-20 breaths per minute). It is caused by an imbalance between the respiratory gases leading to a decreased supply of oxygen and increased carbon dioxide in the blood. The buildup of carbon dioxide makes the blood more acidic. In response, the brain signals the respiratory system to speed up the respiratory rate to correct the imbalance so that the blood acid-alkali balance returns within the normal range. Tachypnea in newborns is a temporary problem caused by the delay in clearance of lung fluid after delivery.
Complications caused by tachypnea:
The complications that arise from the pathological conditions can lead to worsening patient outcomes, such as:
- Congestive heart failure: Tachypnea, if not properly managed, would lead to heart failure and abnormal heart rhythms by causing a reflex increase in heart rate.
- States of anxiety, such as panic attacks, lead to reduced carbon dioxide levels and suppress the normal breathing pattern.
- Tachypnea caused by sepsis is a potential factor for organ dysfunction (multiple organ dysfunction syndrome or MODS).
What causes tachypnea?
Tachypnea can be caused by both physiological and pathological conditions. Physiological causes of the condition refer to the normal compensatory response of the body to correct another condition. However, pathological causes do not occur as an attempt to restore the balance in the body and often present as a symptom of an underlying condition.
- Fever: Tachypnea occurs as a compensatory mechanism to cool the body down.
- A newborn has a higher rate of breathing compared to adults.
- Pregnancy causes increased breathing because of hormonal and bodily changes.
- Hyperventilation due to anxiety, stress.
- Exercise can cause a temporary increase in breathing rate.
- Pulmonary conditions: Asthma, pneumonia, cystic fibrosis, pneumonia, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
- Heart problems: Myocardial infarction, congestive heart failure, valve abnormality of heart, a structural defect in the heart.
- Shock: Septic shock (infection), hypovolemic shock (blood and fluid loss).
- Medications: Aspirin, stimulants, and drugs (such as marijuana).
What are the signs and symptoms of tachypnea?
Tachypnea presents with prominent symptoms during general and physical evaluation. It may be concerning for patients but is not always indicative of a critical illness. The patient usually presents with the following symptoms:
- Feeling shortness of breath
- A blue tint to the finger and lips
- Pulling in or retracting the chest while breathing
- Usage of accessory muscles
In newborns, tachypnea caused by the fluid retention inside the lungs within the first 24 hours of birth presents with:
- Blue coloration in the perioral area
- Grunting or signs of difficulty breathing
- Retraction of the chest
- Bobbing of the head or flared nostrils
How is tachypnea diagnosed?
Tachypnea is diagnosed and evaluated dependent on the patient’s general disposition. The medical professional conducts basic physical exams and diagnostic tests to rule out the causes to provide appropriate treatment. Providers can evaluate based on:
How is tachypnea treated?
Tachypnea should be treated depending on the underlying cause. Also, the patient’s education regarding the cause behind the occurrence of tachypnea is crucial. The safest course of action would be to seek medical help urgently on the onset of symptoms. The treatment options include:
- Oxygen therapy
- The use of antibiotics to treat any infections
- Inhaled medications to dilate and expand the alveoli if the patient has obstructive lung disease
- Newborns can be treated with supplemental oxygen or hyperbaric oxygen as decided by the physician.
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Medline Plus. Rapid Shallow Breathing. https://medlineplus.gov/ency/article/007198.htm
Science Direct. Tachypnea. https://www.sciencedirect.com/topics/medicine-and-dentistry/tachypnea
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