Common Respiratory Disturbances

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  • 0:10 Overview of…
  • 0:26 Dyspnea
  • 1:20 Tachypnea
  • 2:40 Orthopnea
  • 3:32 Hypoxia
  • 4:25 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Sarah Lawson

Sarah has taught nursing courses and has a master's degree in nursing education.

Have you ever wondered what conditions are related to respiratory function and how they are treated? Learn more about common respiratory disturbances and test your knowledge with a quiz.


Many diseases and conditions can cause respiratory disturbances. Often, diseases of the lung or heart cause the symptoms of shortness of breath and difficulty breathing; however, other conditions can contribute to these symptoms, such as anxiety or abdominal obesity. In this lesson, you will learn about dyspnea, tachypnea, orthopnea, and hypoxia.


Dyspnea is the sensation of being out of breath or experiencing difficulty breathing. This is a normal experience during times of physical exertion, but can be a sign of a more serious problem if it occurs at unexpected times. Dyspnea can vary in intensity from being mild and happening only occasionally to affecting nearly every action a person makes.

It is frequently associated with these diseases or conditions: asthma, pneumonia, cardiac ischemia, interstitial lung disease, congestive heart failure (CHF), and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. It can also occur due to psychological causes such as during a panic attack or anxiety.

Treatment of dyspnea varies greatly depending on the underlying cause but can include inhaled corticosteroids and extra oxygen delivered through various methods, such as nasal cannula or face mask.


Tachypnea is abnormally rapid breathing. An adult typically breathes 12 to 20 breaths each minute. Tachypnea is breathing 20 times or more a minute and associated with respiratory distress. Many diseases and conditions can cause tachypnea. COPD, CHF, anemia (or low iron levels), hypoxia (or low oxygen levels), fever, pain, exertion, anxiety, pneumonia, asthma, sepsis (or systemic infection), pulmonary edema (or fluid in the lungs), and a brain mass are just some of the causes of tachypnea. Many medications and drugs can also cause this condition, including salicylates, anticholinergics, and hallucinogens.

Tachypnea can cause many symptoms such as labored breathing, cyanosis (or bluish tint to skin and lips), lightheadedness, and chest pain. The treatment varies depending on the cause. Treatment will usually include extra oxygen delivery with the possible need for ventilation assistance. Inhaled corticosteroids may be included in treatment. If the person is experiencing a panic attack, then anti-anxiety medications will most likely be needed. If an infection is suspected, then antibiotics will most likely be needed.


Orthopnea is shortness of breath in the supine (or flat on back) position. People that experience this will usually sleep with several pillows to prop them up or in reclining chairs. Orthopnea occurs when fluid is redistributed to the central circulatory system and caused increased pulmonary pressure. This extra pressure makes it difficult for people to breathe and results in a feeling of shortness of breath. It is most frequently seen in people with heart failure, specifically left heart failure, but can also occur in people with pulmonary disease or abdominal obesity.

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