By Peter Jaret, M.A.
What is hyperventilation?
Hyperventilation occurs when people breathe too rapidly. Most people take at least a couple of seconds to breathe in and out. If a person sounds as though he's run a mile and is breathing heavily, that's a sign of hyperventilation.
What causes hyperventilation?
Rapid or labored breathing can result from extreme anxiety or panic. It is also associated with fever, head injuries, and asthma. Certain medications can cause hyperventilation as well. Rapid breathing is a common sign of illness in infants, children, and seniors. Hyperventilation alone isn't dangerous, but it can cause carbon dioxide levels in the blood to fall below normal levels. Once that happens, a person may experience the following symptoms:
- Tightness in the throat
- Difficulty getting a deep, "satisfying" breath
- Chest pains
- Trembling hands
- Cramps, numbness, or tingling in the hands and feet
- Numbness or tingling around the mouth
What to watch out for
If a hyperventilating person is also coughing and wheezing when she exhales, she may be having an asthma attack. Help her take any appropriate prescribed medications. If this is her first asthma attack, if it's more severe than previous attacks, or if she experiences intense chest pain spreading to one or both arms, call 911 or go to an emergency room immediately. It could be that a heart attack or another problem is to blame.
What to do when someone is hyperventilating
Make sure the person is in a comfortable position -- preferably sitting down. This will make breathing easier. Speak calmly and reassuringly as you encourage him or her to breathe more slowly. Sometimes it helps for people to hold their breath for a count of three after each inhalation. If this technique doesn't work, try having the person breathe into a paper bag. This helps increase carbon dioxide levels in the blood and encourages slower breathing.
It's important to reassure someone who is having trouble breathing. A person may become even more anxious when he feels as if he can't catch his breath -- and anxiety only increases breathing difficulties. Calmly tell the person that he will be all right. If he is able to carry on a conversation, it sometimes helps to encourage him to talk about what he is feeling.
Once breathing has returned to normal, the symptoms of hyperventilation usually go away without further treatment. If they do not, or if you suspect that the cause is a medical condition rather than anxiety, seek medical attention immediately.
Handbook of First Aid and Emergency Care. American Medical Association.
American College of Emergency Physicians. First Aid Manual.
MedlinePlus. U.S. National Library of Medicine and National Institutes of Health. Rapid deep breathing (hyperventilation). http://www.nlm.nih.gov/medlineplus/ency/article/003071.htm