Know the Causes of Rapid Shallow Breathing

Everyone knows that we need air to survive. In fact, you cannot even imagine living without it for a few minutes. Consequently, your health is affected by the way you breathe.

Through control breathing, you are helping a remarkable array of processes that go on inside the body. Some of these processes include important gene expression, inflammatory pathways, brain maintenance, blood pressure, heart rate, energy level, pain perception, emotional state, and stress response.

This is one reason why you should give importance to the way you are breathing and any small change should be taken seriously.

If you are having rapid shallow breathing then it can have various causes, ranging from severe to fatal.

According to the Medline Plus, a normal breathing rate for an adult at rest is 8 to 16 breaths per minute. For an infant, a normal rate is up to 44 breaths per minute .

But, in case of rapid, shallow breathing, also called tachypnea, you start taking more breaths than normal in a given minute. The term hyperventilation is even used for rapid, deep breathing.

Tachypnea can be the result of many different conditions and you need to determine the true cause before you implementing a treatment plan. Always remember that getting prompt treatment can help prevent complications.

Here are some of the common causes of rapid shallow breathing.

1. Asthma

Asthma is obviously one of the first things that come to a person’s mind when we talk about rapid, shallow breathing. In fact, rapid and shallow breathing is a common symptom of an asthma attack.

Asthma is a chronic inflammatory disease of the lungs where airways narrow, making it difficult to breathe. Apart from shallow, rapid breathing other symptoms of asthma include coughing (especially at night), wheezing and chest tightness, pain, or pressure.

Asthma can be very serious if not treated properly and it recommended seeing a doctor for proper treatment.

Despite major advances in the treatment of asthma and the development of several asthma guidelines, people still die of asthma currently. According to the latest WHO estimates, there were 383,000 deaths due to asthma in 2015 .

2. Choking

Choking can also be the reason behind rapid, shallow breathing, especially in babies. It can also cause shallow breathing in adults too.

If your child is rapidly breathing and struggling to get adequate air, do not panic as your child is choking. One chokes when an object partially or completely blocks the airway.

It is important that they remain calm and try to calm the baby as well. Try to open your child’s mouth and see what is causing the blockage.

When the child is breathing rapidly that means the airway is not fully blocked but maybe only partially. However, if the child is still struggling to breathe it is best to call emergency services without any delay.

According to Injury Facts 2017, choking is the fourth leading cause of unintentional injury death .

3. Pneumonia

Pneumonia is a respiratory condition that can cause rapid and shallow breathing.

This respiratory condition is characterized by inflammation of the lungs due to a bacterial, viral or fungal infection. It can affect both children and adults.

Other symptoms of pneumonia include fever, lack of appetite, wheezing, fatigue, nausea, and change in coloring.

Pneumonia can be deadly to elderly people and infants as well as persons with compromised immune systems. Hence, if a person is showing symptoms of pneumonia it is important to consult a doctor immediately.

4. Anxiety Attacks

Anxiety attacks, also called panic attacks, can also cause rapid and shallow breathing.

In fact, when dealing with any kind of anxiety or fear, people tend to breathe in their upper lungs (upper chest) with shallow, rapid breaths, instead of breathing into their lower lungs.

Other symptoms of anxiety include dizziness, a lump in the throat, tingling or numbness in the hands or feet, nausea, and confusion.

This type of change in the breathing pattern is temporary, and soon with controlled breathing, you can reduce the symptoms.

5. Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)

COPD, which is defined as a group of lung conditions that make it difficult to empty air out of the lungs due to narrowed airways can also cause rapid and shallow breathing.

COPD could be due to chronic bronchitis or emphysema. Bronchitis is an inflammation of the airways, whereas emphysema is the destruction of air sacs in the lungs.

Rapid, shallow breathing in people with COPD is usually caused by either too low of an oxygen level (partial pressure of oxygen or pO2,) or too high of a carbon dioxide level. Both the situation stimulates rapid shallow breathing.

6. Diabetic Ketoacidosis

Diabetic ketoacidosis is a serious condition that can cause rapid, shallow breathing. Diabetic ketoacidosis is far more prevalent in people with type 1 diabetes than in those with type 2.

Diabetic ketoacidosis occurs when your body doesn’t produce enough insulin. Due to this, the body starts using stored body fat instead of glucose (sugar) as a source of fuel. This leads to the acids called ketones (by-products of the breakdown of fat) build up in your body.

When concentration levels in the blood of ketones increases, it can overwhelm the body, leaving the body unable to effectively rid itself of them. This ultimately affects the respiratory system that tries to compensate through shallow, rapid breathing.

Diabetes ketoacidosis is a very dangerous condition and should be treated as an emergency.

7. Bronchiolitis

In small children, bronchiolitis can cause difficulty in breathing.

It is a common infection of the lungs caused by a virus that makes the tiny airways in the lungs swell. Due to the swelling, the airways become narrower, which makes it harder to breathe, making the person take rapid, shallow breathes.

Other signs and symptoms of bronchiolitis include fever, running nose, heavy cough, wheezing, flaring of nostrils, increased irritability and tiredness.

8. Pulmonary Embolism

In simple terms, pulmonary embolism means having a blood clot in the lung. The clot forms due to a blockage in a blood vessel in the lungs .

This can lead to hyperventilation as well as other symptoms like chest pain, coughing, and rapid or irregular heartbeat.

It is a serious, potentially life-threatening condition. Hence, prompt treatment is important and can be life-saving.


  1. Rapid shallow breathing. MedlinePlus Medical Encyclopedia. Accessed February 23, 2018.
  2. World Health Organization. Accessed February 23, 2018.
  3. Choking Backention and Rescue Tips. National Safety Council. Accessed February 23, 2018.
  4. Pulmonary Embolism | Deep Vein Thrombosis | MedlinePlus. MedlinePlus Trusted Health Information for You. Accessed February 23, 2018.

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