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Abnormal Respiratory Patterns: Signs and Medical Terms


The term "eupnea" is just a fancy word for a normal breathing pattern just as "apnea" is the medical term for the total absence of breathing. Let's take a look at six abnormal respiratory patterns that, depending on the situation, can suggest a threat to life. Those six patterns are: Cheyne-Stokes respirations, Central neurogenic hyperventilation, Biot, Kussmaul respirations, tachypnea, and apneustic.

Cheyne-Stokes Respirations

This is one of the abnormal respiratory patterns that might be indicative of a life-threatening situation, because it can result from an injury to the head. Cheyne-Stokes respirations describe someone who rhythmically breathes rapidly for a period of time and then breathes slowly for a period of time. These abnormal respiratory patterns are accompanied by periods of apnea. Remember that apnea is the total cessation of breathing.

Central Neurogenic Hyperventilation

Another one of the abnormal respiratory patterns that is commonly observed in people who have sustained a head injury is central neurogenic hyperventilation. These respirations are rapid and deep. This is very different from eupnea (normal breathing).

Biot Respirations

Biot respirations, also known as "ataxic" are characterized by breathing that is rapid, but irregular. There is no rhythm or "pace" in this type of abnormal breathing, which also includes periods when the person is apneic (not breathing at all).

Kussmaul Respirations

This is probably one of the easiest to remember of the abnormal respiratory patterns, because it might be observed in diabetic emergencies. Like ataxic respirations, Kussmaul respirations are rapid and irregular. However, a fruity smell is noted on the person's breath. That fruity smell is also called an acetone odor.


Tachypnea is simply rapid breathing. If someone has been exercising or is excited, of course they might experience tachypnea. That does not necessarily mean that there is anything medically wrong with them. However, tachypnea that occurs with an injury could be a sign of the early stages of shock.

Apneustic Respirations

The last of the abnormal respiratory patterns at which we'll briefly look is known as apneustic respirations. This is breathing characterized by prolonged effort to inhale. A threat to life should be suspected and medical help should be summoned.

Technically, there is a difference between the terms "respirations" and "ventilations." However, they are almost always incorrectly used interchangeably even by health care providers. Respiration refers to the exchange of gases (oxygen and carbon dioxide) from/to fresh air. "Ventilation" refers simply to the movement into and out of the lungs whether gas exchange (respiration) is taking place normally or not.

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