Hyperventilation is rapid or deep breathing that can occur with anxiety or panic. It is also called overbreathing, and it may leave you feeling breathless.
You breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. Excessive breathing creates low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood. This causes many of the symptoms of hyperventilation.
Feeling very anxious or having a panic attack are the usual reasons that you may hyperventilate. But rapid breathing can be a symptom of a disease, such as:
Your health care provider will determine the cause of your hyperventilation. Rapid breathing may be a medical emergency you need to get treated, unless you have had this before and your provider has told you that you can treat it on your own.
Often, panic and hyperventilation become a vicious cycle. Panic leads to rapid breathing, and breathing rapidly can make you feel panicked.
If you frequently overbreathe, you may have hyperventilation syndrome that is triggered by emotions of stress, anxiety, depression, or anger. Hyperventilation from panic may be related to a specific fear or phobia, such as a fear of heights, dying, or closed-in spaces (claustrophobia).
If you have hyperventilation syndrome, you might not be aware you are breathing fast. But you will be aware of having many of the other symptoms, including:
Your doctor will examine you and see if there are other causes of your overbreathing.
If your doctor has said your hyperventilation is due to anxiety, stress, or panic, there are steps you can take at home. You, your friends, and family can learn techniques to stop it from happening and prevent future attacks.
If you start hyperventilating, the goal is to raise the carbon dioxide level in your blood. This will end most of your symptoms. Ways to do this include:
Over the long term, measures to help you stop overbreathing include:
If these methods alone do not prevent your overbreathing, your doctor may recommend a beta-blocker medication.
Call your health care provider if:
Your doctor will perform a careful physical examination. The doctor will also ask detailed questions about your symptoms.
Your breathing will also be checked. If you are not breathing quickly, the doctor may try to cause hyperventilation by telling you to breathe in a certain way.
While you hyperventilate, the doctor will ask how you feel and watch how you breathe. The doctor will see which muscles you are using in your chest wall and surrounding areas.
Tests that may be performed include:
Rapid deep breathing; Breathing - rapid and deep; Overbreathing; Fast deep breathing; Respiratory rate - rapid and deep
Buttaravoli P, Leffler SM. Minor Emergencies. 3rd ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 3.
Duffin J, Phillipson EA. Hypoventilation and hyperventilation syndromes. In: Mason RJ, Broaddus CV, Martin TR, et al. Murray & Nadel's Textbook of Respiratory Medicine. 5th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2010:chap 78.
Updated by: Linda J. Vorvick, MD, Medical Director and Director of Didactic Curriculum, MEDEX Northwest Division of Physician Assistant Studies, Department of Family Medicine, UW Medicine, School of Medicine, University of Washington, Seattle, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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