Shallow Breathing (Tachypnea) in Pulmonary Fibrosis

Fast shallow breathing (tachypnea) is one of several breathing difficulties experienced by pulmonary fibrosis (PF) patients. Breathing problems are common in PF because the disease causes progressive scarring in the lungs which inhibits the normal exchange of oxygen gas needed for healthy breathing and blood flow.  Low blood oxygen levels lead to shortness of breath (dypsnea) and shallow breathing.

Rapid or shallow breathing in PF results from the patient’s inability to take in enough oxygen. Typically, a healthy person will take between 12 to 20 breaths per minute. Tachypnea is identified when the average number of breaths exceeds 20 breaths per minute.

While tachypnea is a symptom impacted by oxygen intake, it can also cause other symptoms and side effects. A 1999 Consensus Statement published by the American Thoracic Society on Idiopathic Pulmonary Fibrosis: Diagnosis and Treatment notes that rapid, shallow breathing while IPF patients are awake is indicative of sleep disturbances — tachypnea reflexes occur during sleep and when the patient is wake.

“Although definitive studies are lacking, identification and correction of the sleep disturbance and the use of supplemental oxygen during sleep are recommended because these may reduce morbidity and improve patient survival, especially regarding the pulmonary hypertension and cor pulmonale that develop in patients with IPF,” according to the report.

How is shallow breathing treated in pulmonary fibrosis?

Shallow breathing and shortness of breath in patients with IPF can be treated with oxygen therapy. The steady flow of oxygen gas, supplied through a tank or canister via a thin tube placed into the patient’s nostrils, increases levels of pure oxygen received by the lungs which is then delivered into the bloodstream.

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