What Causes Rapid Shallow Breathing?

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  • Written By: Nat Robinson
  • Edited By: Heather Bailey
  • Last Modified Date: 03 November 2019
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Rapid shallow breathing occurs when a person takes frequent small breaths of air. The process of rapid breathing is also known as tachypnea. When an individual is suffering from this condition, he or she is unable to take deep breaths, therefore, air cannot properly fill the lungs. The causes of rapid shallow breathing can greatly vary, ranging from chest pain to a pulmonary infection. In general, regardless of the cause, the paramedics should be called immediately for a person experiencing this type of breathing difficulty.

Lung disease is a common cause of rapid shallow breathing. Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) is an example of a lung disease that may cause this to happen. Generally, COPD is viewed as a combination of both chronic bronchitis and emphysema. Either of these conditions can significantly impair airflow into the lungs. As a result of the airflow restriction, an individual may need to take short quick breaths of air.

Another cause of this type of breathing can be asthma. This inflammatory disorder causes the airways to become inflamed and narrow. When this happens, a person may wheeze, complain of chest tightness, cough and experience breathing problems. One of the greatest problems is commonly rapid shallow breathing, which results as the person struggles to get air. In many cases, a certain trigger will lead an asthmatic person into an attack which can initiate these symptoms.


Pulmonary embolism can be an additional cause. This condition is characterized by a blockage in one or several arteries in the lungs. The blockage is most often caused by blood clots. Frequently, the blood clots reach the lungs by traveling from other locations in the body. Once settled into the lungs the clots can cause a disturbance in breathing.

Sometimes, rapid shallow breathing is seen in newborn babies immediately after birth. The condition is commonly known as transient tachypnea, as it usually only lasts a very short amount of time. In most cases, babies breathe this way when there is too much fluid in their lungs. The extra fluid may make it hard to take deep breaths and as a result, the baby may breathe in a rapid shallow fashion.

Prompt treatment for rapid shallow breathing is vital. Newborns with this condition are commonly treated with oxygen. Adults may be treated by this method as well. When the rapid breathing is due to a health condition like COPD or asthma, patients may be prescribed medicine to combat the breathing irregularity. Some of the most commonly used medicines include bronchodilators and different types of inhaled corticosteriods.


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