Hyperventilation is rapid or deep breathing, usually caused by anxiety or panic. When you breathe, you inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. Excessive breathing may lead to high oxygen and low levels of carbon dioxide in your blood, which causes many of the symptoms felt by someone experiencing a hyperventilation episode.
- Breathe at an abnormally rapid rate, increasing the carbon dioxide loss rate.
- Be or become overexcited.
Hyperventilation Is Not Life-Threatening
Hyperventilating is not life-threatening as a stand-alone episode without any other symptoms to confuse the situation, like an allergic reaction or pre-existing lung condition or asthma. Even if you fail to get your breathing under control, you will eventually pass out. At that point, your brain will automatically return to normal breathing, and when you regain consciousness, you will be back to normal.
One of the most common causes of hyperventilation is emotional distress, including panic, fear, or anxiety. Studies show that people who suffer from hyperventilation as a result of panic attacks commonly have an underlying (undiagnosed) psychiatric disorder requiring identification and treatment. Often the sufferer has repressed memories they do not wish to confront, and the fear and panic around the underlying cause manifests in the form of panic attacks that result in hyperventilation.
Breathing is an automatic response you have no conscious control over. Your brain does it without you having any say in the matter. You can hold your breath until you pass out, but the moment you pass out, your brain will automatically resume breathing normally.
What you do have control over is your breathing pattern. You can consciously slow or quicken your breathing to relax or take in more oxygen if you exercise. Too much exercise can leave you feeling short of breath. If you suddenly find yourself in an unfamiliar situation, you might become anxious and start to breathe faster until you begin to feel faint. When this happens, it is called hyperventilation or over-breathing.
Specifically when you inhale deeper and take faster breaths than normal. This deep, quick breathing changes the gas exchange in your lungs. Normally, you breathe in oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide. When you hyperventilate, you breathe out more carbon dioxide than normal and CO2 levels in your bloodstream drop. This can cause some of the symptoms linked to hyperventilation to manifest.
Hyperventilation occurs most often in people between 15 – 55 years of age. An episode begins when you feel fearful, nervous, anxious, or stressed. If you hyperventilate regularly, your doctor may tell you that you have hyperventilation syndrome.
Studies show that women hyperventilate more often than men. It may happen more often when a woman is pregnant, but the problem usually goes away on its own after the baby is born.
What Causes Hyperventilation
Many conditions and situations can bring on a hyperventilation episode, including:
- Panic attack
- Anxiety disorder
- Hard exercise
- Worry or anxiety
- A variety of lung diseases
- Side effects from certain drugs
- High altitude
- Having a head injury
What Are The Symptoms Of Hyperventilation
You may not initially be aware that you are starting to over-breathe until your breathing reaches a certain stage. Signs may include:
- Shortness of breath
- Feeling that you can’t get enough air
- Panic, fear or anxiety building up quickly
- A faster than normal heartbeat
- Feeling faint, dizzy, or lightheaded
- Pain or tightness in your chest
- Frequent yawns or sighs
- A numb, tingly feeling in your hands or feet
- Hand or foot muscle spasms
What Is The First Aid For Hyperventilation
Conscious and focused attention to slowing your breathing pattern will deescalate the situation and prevent hyperventilation if you focus on taking controlled breaths. You can do this by counting your in-breath for five seconds and then slowly releasing it for six seconds. Then add a second to each inhale and exhale until you reach 10. At that point, your breathing should be back under control, and you can return to normal breathing.
These steps may not feel natural at first, but don’t let that stop you. Controlled breathing will force you to return to breathing normally once again.
Several techniques are available:
Purse your lips:
- Put your lips into the same position you would use to blow out birthday candles.
- Breathe in slowly through your nose, not your mouth.
- Breathe out slowly through the small opening between your lips.
- Take your time to exhale, and don’t blow the air out with force.
- Repeat these steps until you feel normal.
Limit your airflow: Keep your mouth closed and press one nostril closed with your finger. Breathe in and out through the open nostril. Don’t inhale or exhale too quickly. Repeat several times. Ensure all your breathing is inhaled through your nose and out via your mouth.
If you are with someone hyperventilating, encourage them to try these moves. Make sure that they inhale and exhale slowly, and coach them to focus and repeat for as long as it takes to return to normal breathing. You will see a notable change quickly and hear their breathing slow down and even out.
When Should You Seek Assessment With A Doctor
If this is the first time you have ever hyperventilated, see a doctor for an evaluation. If you have hyperventilated previously and aren’t able to get your breathing under control within a few minutes, or if you are trying to change your breathing patterns and it isn’t working, you can go to the ER.
If someone else is hyperventilating or they have any of the following accompanying symptoms, take them to an emergency room or call an ambulance on 000 in Australia:
- Chest pain, including pain that is crushing, squeezing (feels like a heavy weight on the chest), or is sharp and stabbing, especially if it is worse with deep breaths.
- A hard time breathing
- A racing heartbeat over 110 beats per minute while resting
- Fevers or chills
- Fainting/loss of consciousness
If this isn’t your first time hyperventilating and the problem gets in the way of your normal activities, you may have hyperventilation syndrome or an anxiety problem. Your doctor or therapist can find a diagnosis and help you manage the problem. Medication may help some people.
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