What Is Tachypnea and What Can it Mean?

What Does Tachypnea Mean and Why is it Concerning?

man holding his neck as if having difficulty breathing
What is tachypnea and what are the causes?. istockphoto.com

Definition: Tachypnea

Tachypnea is defined as an elevated respiratory rate, or more simply, breathing that is more rapid than normal. A normal respiratory rate can vary depending on age and activity but is usually between 12 and 20 breaths per minute for a resting adult. In contrast to the term hyperpnea which refers to rapid deep breathing, tachypnea refers to rapid, shallow breathing.

Physiological Causes of Tachypnea

Physiological causes of a condition refer to the normal response of the body to correct another condition Tachypnea can be caused by 2 primary physiological processes:

  • An imbalance between the respiratory gasses in the body - A low oxygen level in the blood (hypoxemia) or an increased level of carbon dioxide in the blood (hypercapnia) can cause tachypnea.
  • An acid-base imbalance in the body - Tachypnea can be caused by an excess of acid in the body or a decrease in base in the body (a disruption in the acid-base balance of the body.) When the body senses that the blood is too acidic, it blows off carbon dioxide out of the lung in an attempt to rid the body of acid.  

Pathological Causes of Tachypnea

A pathological cause is one which does not occur in an effort to restore the balance in the body, and actually, does the opposite. For example, hyperventilation can cause rapid shallow breathing that is not occurring as an effort to restore balance in the body, but instead may be a reaction to anxiety or fear.

Tachypnea vs Dyspnea

Dyspnea is a term that also describes breathing but refers to the sensation of shortness of breath.

Dyspnea can occur with a normal breathing rate, a high breathing rate, or a low breathing rate. It can also occur with both a shallow breathing pattern or a deep breathing pattern.

What Conditions May Result in Tachypnea

A wide range of medical condition can result in tachypnea. By categories these may include:

  • Lung related - Lung diseases which result in a low level of oxygen or an elevated level of carbon dioxide in the body may include chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), asthma, pneumonia, pulmonary fibrosis, a pneumothorax (collapsed lung) or a pulmonary embolism, among others.  
  • Heart-related - Conditions such as heart failure, anemia, or a low thyroid can result in cardiovascular changes which in turn cause tachypnea.
  • Hyperventilation as described above. This may occur due to pain, anxiety, or other conditions.
  • Metabolic acidosis - When the acid level is too high in the blood, breathing rate increases to blow off carbon dioxide. Some causes of this include diabetic ketoacidosis, lactic acidosis, and hepatic encephalopathy.
  • Central nervous system-related - Tachypnea may be directly caused by brain abnormalities such as brain tumors.
  • Fever - A fever for any reason can cause tachypnea. With a fever, tachypnea is compensatory, meaning that breathing becomes more rapid to eliminate heat from the body.
  • Medications - Drugs such as aspirin, stimulants, and marijuana can cause a rapid shallow breathing rate.

Symptoms of Tachypnea

Tachypnea may be accompanied by the sensation of shortness of breath and an inability to get enough air (dyspnea), blue-tinged fingers and lips (cyanosis) and sucking in of the chest muscles with breathing (retracting.)

Tachypnea and Lung Cancer

Lung cancer may cause tachypnea in a number of different ways. Damage to the lungs can disrupt the normal exchange of oxygen and carbon dioxide. Scarring to the chest, such as with lung cancer surgery, may result in a decreased ability to take a breath and draw in oxygen. Chemotherapy-induced anemia can further worsen tachypnea as there are fewer red blood cells to carry oxygen, and hence breathing becomes more rapid in an attempt to correct this.

Treatments

The treatment of tachypnea depends primarily on determining and correcting the underlying cause.

Pronunciation: tak-ip-nee-uh

Examples: Sam experienced tachypnea when he went for a walk without his oxygen.

Sources:

Han, M. Patient information: Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), including emphysema (Beyond the Basics). UpToDate. Updated 08/12/15. http://www.uptodate.com/contents/chronic-obstructive-pulmonary-disease-copd-including-emphysema-beyond-the-basics

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