Hyperventilation

By:    Published: May 10, 2012

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Even the most calm and composed people experience hyperventilation at some point in time. Your symptoms will begin with a feeling of extreme stress. You might then begin to breathe more rapidly and deeply, and you may experience tightness in your chest. People will feel numbness and tingling in the extremities and might even experience a fainting spell.

What Is It?

Hyperventilation, also known as overbreathing, is rapid breathing that may occur due to anxiety or panic. The end result can leave a person feeling breathless, gasping for air at an increased rate. The rapid breathing reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in your blood, and you may experience an accelerated heartbeat which will cause additional shortness of breath. While most cases of hyperventilation are the result of high anxiety or a panic attack, it can also be an indicator for the following conditions:

  • Bleeding
  • Problems with your heart or lungs
  • Infection

Types

There are two types of hyperventilation:

  • Acute Hyperventilation: This occurs during exciting or stressful situations. An adrenaline rush might cause acute hyperventilation. A sudden panic attack due to an isolated incident.
  • Chronic Hyperventilation: If your breathing does not return to normal after a period of stressful events, the symptoms may continue and result in chronic hyperventilation. This is also known as hyperventilation syndrome. Recurrent panic attacks, issues with anxiety and stress are often linked to chronic hyperventilation.

Symptoms

Symptoms of hyperventilation may last up to 20 or 30 minutes, and can include:

  • Belching and bloating due to air being swallowed
  • Chest pains
  • Confusion
  • Feeling dizzy
  • Dry mouth
  • Perspiration
  • Feeling lightheaded
  • Muscle spasms in the extremities
  • Pins and needles, especially around the arms and mouth
  • Palpitations
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue

Those who frequently suffer from such symptoms and episodes of panic attacks and high anxiety are most likely suffering from chronic hyperventilation.

Causes

Hyperventilation may be caused by extreme emotional stress, anxiety, fever, medications and even intense exercise. Other risk factors include cardiac disorders, infections, sepsis head injuries, asthma, and emphysema. People who suffer panic disorders and lung diseases are more likely to experience episodes of hyperventilation.

Other causes include:

  • Severe pain or trauma
  • Stimulants
  • Ketoacidosis and other similar medical conditions
  • Bleeding
  • Certain drugs or drug overdose

Those who might be suffering from chronic hyperventilation may require special treatment for training in proper breathing methods. They may also be taught how to manage stress, anxiety, panic attacks and other disorders that may be causing hyperventilation syndrome.

Tests and Diagnosis

A physician will typically start with a physical examination to determine the cause of hyperventilation. He or she may ask a series of questions regarding the type of symptoms, characteristics of the hyperventilation, medications being taken, medical conditions, feelings of anxiety or stress and other questions that can help determine the cause of the condition.

The following tests can also help diagnose episodes of hyperventilation:

  • Arterial Blood Samples
  • Other Blood Tests
  • Chest X-rays
  • Ventilation/Perfusion Scans
  • Chest CT Scans
  • ECG (Heart Tracing)

Treatment

A physician will treat hyperventilation based on the cause. Hyperventilation may indicate a more serious medical problem, and you should seek medical help if you experience frequent episodes. The physician will explore other medical conditions in relation to hyperventilation episodes before diagnosing hyperventilation syndrome.

If the physician determines that hyperventilation is being caused by stress, anxiety or panic attacks, he or she might recommend home treatment in the following ways:

  • Stress reduction and management. Consistently practicing deep breathing might also help. You should also be able to recognize warning signs before episodes of hyperventilation occur. Take all steps possible to make sure that you are safe during an attack.
  • Friends and family for reassurance. Your loved ones can help you through an attack by keeping you calm and reducing your stress and anxiety.
  • Exercises and techniques to bring breathing under control. When hyperventilating, you should sit down, lean forward, and place your head between your knees. Concentrate on taking deep and steady breaths. Breathing into a paper bag can help resupply the body with essential carbon dioxide.

For chronic hyperventilation, a physician may recommend the following:

  • Professional psychiatric help if your hyperventilation attacks are attributed to anxiety or panic.
  • Learning to breathe through the diaphragm and abdomen as opposed to the chest wall.
  • Exercising regularly and living a healthy lifestyle.
  • Relaxation techniques to reduce stress and anxiety.

When To Seek Medical Attention

A person should seek immediate, medical attention if any of the following were to occur:

  • Experiencing hyperventilation for the first time for no apparent reason.
  • Hyperventilation accompanied by pain, fever or bleeding.
  • Hyperventilation that does not ease up and/or progressively gets worse.
  • Hyperventilation followed by other symptoms that may indicate another serious medical condition.

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