What Causes Rapid Shallow Breathing?

Older woman with COPD getting lungs checked in clinician office.

Anyone can experience rapid shallow breathing, also known as tachypnea. Tachypnea is not a medical condition; instead, it is your body’s natural response to a lack of oxygen or too much carbon dioxide in the bloodstream.¹

Tachypnea Definition

Consider a person’s average breathing rate to understand tachypnea and how it affects your breathing ability. Adults at rest have a breathing rate (or respiratory rate) of 12 to 25 breaths per minute.² 

Anything below the average is considered abnormal breathing. As mentioned, tachypnea is a response to low oxygen. It signals to the body that you need more air, thus increasing the rate at which you breathe. 

Causes of Tachypnea

Rapid shallow breathing may result from the following events or activities:

Four causes of tachypnea

  • Running 
  • Intense physical activity
  • Stress or anxiety (i.e., panic attack)
  • Allergic reaction³

Although tachypnea does not necessarily mean you have an underlying condition that affects your ability to breathe, certain conditions can also trigger this response, including:

  • Asthma
  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis
  • Sepsis4

Tachypnea and COPD

COPD is a chronic lung condition that constricts our ability to breathe, preventing us from receiving sufficient oxygen. This condition can also reduce our ability to exhale carbon dioxide sufficiently, thereby increasing its presence in the blood and leading to another condition known as hypercapnia.5

Hypercapnia may cause other COPD symptoms to worsen, such as fatigue and shortness of breath.6 

Tachypnea vs. Shortness of Breath

If you or a loved one lives with COPD, you may wonder if tachypnea is the same as shortness of breath (or breathlessness), a common symptom of COPD and other chronic lung conditions like bronchiectasis.

Tachypnea differs from breathlessness since it increases the body’s respiratory rate, causing you to inhale and exhale breaths rapidly. As a result, your breaths are shallow vs. deep, meaning you inhale and exhale shorter breaths. 

Breathlessness is typically associated with conditions affecting the heart or lungs. For example, patients may experience the sensation of chest tightening or airway obstruction. As a result, they feel they cannot get sufficient air into their lungs to take a deep breath or that they cannot catch their breath.7 

With shortness of breath, breathing is not rapid but feels labored.8

Is Tachypnea Serious?

Tachypnea and shortness of breath can both occur during and after physical activity. However, if you are resting and experience breathing difficulty for no apparent reason, you’ll want to talk to your clinician, especially if it lasts longer than a few days.

Your clinician may recommend  a series of pulmonary function tests and/or a CT (computerized tomography) scan to check for signs of an underlying condition triggering this response.

Treating Tachypnea

Because tachypnea may not necessarily mean that you have an underlying lung condition, treatment plans will vary. Therefore, you’ll want to work closely with your healthcare team to find the right approach to managing symptoms. 

If you discover that a lung condition, such as COPD or bronchiectasis, is causing you to experience rapid shallow breaths, your treatment plan may include a combination of breathing techniques, antibiotics, and airway clearance therapy.

Treating Chronic Lung Conditions

Lung conditions like COPD and bronchiectasis cause the lungs and airways to weaken over time due to shortness of breath, chronic cough, and respiratory infection. So when your respiratory system is unable to function correctly, it makes it more difficult for your body to perform essential tasks that affect your health, such as preventing mucus buildup that leads to infection.

Airway clearance in the form of High Frequency Chest Wall Oscillation (HFCWO) therapy helps break up mucus in the chest, propelling it upward where it is easier to cough out. SmartVest HFCWO vest therapy helps patients manage their symptoms and prevent airway obstruction, so they can breathe easier.

A couple looks through their SmartVest patient packet

Learn More About SmartVest

To learn more about HFCWO therapy via The SmartVest Airway Clearance System, a proactive therapy approach to helping patients manage COPD, bronchiectasis, and other lung conditions, request an informational packet today!

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You’ll learn how SmartVest works to deliver airway clearance and reduce flare-ups that cause symptoms like rapid shallow breathing to worsen.

To discuss your symptoms and learn if SmartVest is the right option for you, schedule a time to chat with one of our Respiratory Therapists or call them directly at 1.855.528.5690


[1] Medical News Today. “What to Know about Tachypnea.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324548

[2] The Cleveland Clinic. “Tachypnea.” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/24124-tachypnea

[3] The Cleveland Clinic. “Tachypnea.” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/24124-tachypnea

[4] Medical News Today. “What to Know about Tachypnea.” Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/324548

[5] National Library of Medicine (NIH). “Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease Compensatory Measures.” Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK525962/

[6] Medical News Today. “What is hypercapnia or hypercarbia? Retrieved from https://www.medicalnewstoday.com/articles/320501

[7] The Cleveland Clinic. “Shortness of Breath (Dyspnea).” Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/symptoms/16942-shortness-of-breath-dyspnea

[8] American Lung Association. “Learn About Shortness of Breath.” Retrieved from https://www.lung.org/lung-health-diseases/warning-signs-of-lung-disease/shortness-of-breath/learn-about-shortness-of-breath