Types of Breathing Problems, Explained

Medically Reviewed by Jennifer Robinson, MD on August 28, 2022
4 min read

Your respiration rate -- the number of times you breathe in a minute -- is one of the vital signs your doctor checks when you visit. The “normal” rate depends on your age, but a typical adult takes between 12 and 20 breaths a minute when resting.

You can measure your rate by counting the number of breaths you take in a minute. (If you don’t want to wait that long, you can count how many you take in 15 seconds and multiply that number by 4.)

If you don’t feel well, how you’re breathing can give your doctor clues about what the problem might be.

This common issue happens when you breathe faster than your body needs to and you get rid of too much carbon dioxide. That throws off the balance in your blood.

Hyperventilation can be caused by things like exercise, anxiety, or asthma. It can make you feel dizzy, weak, or confused.

The traditional treatment is to breathe into a paper bag so you breathe back in some of the carbon dioxide. But today, doctors recommend taking deep breaths or covering your mouth and one of your nostrils to limit how much air gets in. If you have trouble calming down, ask someone to help you.

This is when you feel “short of breath,” like your body can’t get enough air. It’s a common symptom of many heart and lung problems, and it can be a sign of something serious, like an asthma attack or heart attack. Get medical help right away if you’re short of breath very suddenly.

It also can happen if you’re at high altitudes, in poor physical health, or are obese. In those cases, your doctor might recommend special breathing exercises, or they may give you oxygen.

Several types of dyspnea happen only when your body is in a certain position. They include:

  • Orthopnea, when you feel short of breath when you lie down. It often happens in people who have heart failure, when blood can build up in their lungs if they lie down. Sitting up or standing usually eases the problem.
  • A similar condition called paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea can make you feel so short of breath that you wake up in the middle of the night. This is also a symptom of heart failure.
  • Trepopnea is a kind of dyspnea that happens when you lie on a certain side. It might happen when you lie on your left side but not on your right -- or the other way around.
  • Platypnea is a rare type of dyspnea that makes you feel short of breath when you’re standing up. Lying down makes you feel better.

This is when you’re breathing more slowly than normal. It can mean your body isn’t getting enough oxygen.

Bradypnea can be a sign of a condition that affects your metabolism or another problem, like sleep apnea, carbon monoxide poisoning, or a drug overdose.

This is the opposite of bradypnea. It means you’re breathing faster than normal. It can be a sign of an illness that limits how much air your lungs can take in, like COPD or pneumonia. You breathe faster to keep the same amount of oxygen flowing into your body.

It also can happen in people who are obese or in infants who have problems breathing.

This is when you’re breathing in more air but not necessarily breathing faster. It can happen during exercise or because of a medical condition that makes it harder for your body to get oxygen, like heart failure or sepsis (a serious overreaction by your immune system).

This type of breathing can sometimes make you hyperventilate.

This pattern of fast, deep breaths sometimes happens in people who have a problem related to diabetes known as diabetic ketoacidosis.

When you have diabetes, your body doesn’t use sugar for energy the way it should. Instead, it burns stored fat for energy. That raises the level of acid in your blood. Your body tries to get things back into balance by getting rid of more carbon dioxide, so you breathe in faster and breathe out more deeply.

Because it changes your body’s chemistry, Kussmaul breathing can lead to fruity-smelling breath.