What is hyperventilation?
Hyperventilation, or overbreathing, is a condition in which you breathe too quickly or deeply. Usually, hyperventilation occurs with anxiety. Overbreathing can cause imbalances in the levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your blood. These imbalances can make you feel breathless, dizzy, light-headed, confused or weak.
Hyperventilation is most often caused by stress, anxiety or panic. It may also result from medical conditions, such as asthma, bleeding, a pulmonary (lung) condition, a cardiac (heart) condition, diabetic ketoacidosis (life-threatening complication of diabetes), or an infection. The side effects of certain drugs or medications can also trigger hyperventilation. Along with rapid breathing, other symptoms of hyperventilation may include abdominal bloating, chest pain, difficulty sleeping, dry mouth, muscle spasms, numbness, or tingling.
Hyperventilation can happen to anyone. Usually, adults breathe at eight to 16 breaths per minute. A breathing rate exceeding 16 breaths per minute is characteristic of either hyperventilation or tachypnea (rapid shallow breathing). While tachypnea and hyperventilation are sometimes considered to be the same, hyperventilation is usually related to stress or anxiety.
Treatment for hyperventilation is aimed at increasing carbon dioxide levels in the blood, usually by adjusting your breathing rate. Seeking reassurance from nearby people or reducing stress may help you cope with anxiety or panic. You can also increase carbon dioxide levels and decrease your oxygen levels by pursing your lips or breathing through a single nostril. Long-term care for hyperventilation includes psychiatric help, breathing exercises, relaxation techniques, and physical exercise. In serious cases, medication may be prescribed to treat hyperventilation.
Seek prompt medical care if you have hyperventilation that is persistent or causes you concern.
What are the symptoms of hyperventilation?
Symptoms of hyperventilation are related to having too little carbon dioxide in the blood. Breathing too quickly reduces the normal amount of carbon dioxide in the bloodstream. This interferes with the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body. Having an improper balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide can lead to many generalized symptoms, including weakness, dizziness, light-headedness, or confusion.
Common symptoms of hyperventilation
You may experience hyperventilation symptoms daily or only occasionally. Any of these symptoms can be severe:
- Abdominal bloating
- Chest pain
- Difficulty sleeping
- Dizziness or vertigo
- Dry mouth
- Numbness or tingling (paresthesia)
- Shortness of breath or rapid breathing (tachypnea)
- Weakness (loss of strength)
Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition
In some cases, hyperventilation can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:
What causes hyperventilation?
Generally, hyperventilation occurs due to stress, anxiety or panic. It may also be related to a pulmonary (lung) condition or cardiac (heart) condition, blood loss, pain, or side effects from certain medications.
Psychological causes of hyperventilation
Generally, hyperventilation is a symptom of a psychological disturbance including:
- Somatization disorder (physical symptoms for which no cause can be found)
- Strong emotion, such as anger or depression
Cardiac and pulmonary causes of hyperventilation
Hyperventilation may also arise from a problem with the heart, circulatory system, lungs, or respiratory system such as:
- Asthma and allergies
- Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, includes emphysema and chronic bronchitis)
- Congestive heart failure (deterioration of the heart’s ability to pump blood)
- Myocardial infarction (heart attack)
- Pulmonary embolism (blood clot in the lung)
Other causes of hyperventilation
Hyperventilation may also result from a variety of other problems related to other body systems including:
- Diabetic ketoacidosis (life-threatening complication of diabetes)
- Drug abuse
- Medication side effects
- Stimulant overuse
A number of factors increase the risk of developing hyperventilation. Not all people with risk factors will get hyperventilation. Risk factors include:
- Certain medications such as stimulants
- Family history of anxiety or panic attacks
- Panic disorder such as phobia
- Personal medical history of anxiety or panic attacks
Reducing your risk of hyperventilation
If you have hyperventilated before or are prone to hyperventilation, you may benefit from reducing your stress level and learning to cope with anxiety or rapid breathing. You may be able to lower your risk of hyperventilation by:
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Learning breathing techniques
- Practicing relaxation techniques
- Telling family and friends what to say to calm you down when you begin hyperventilating
How is hyperventilation treated?
Hyperventilation is treated by increasing the amount of carbon dioxide in the blood. This can usually be accomplished by changing breathing patterns. In serious cases, medication may be required to treat hyperventilation. Patient education and behavior modification are essential pillars in the treatment of hyperventilation and prevention of recurrent episodes. Psychological counseling has been shown to benefit patients with anxiety or panic disorders that lead to hyperventilation.
Breathing modification for hyperventilation
Changing breathing patterns may help reduce hyperventilation. Techniques for changing your breathing pattern include:
- Breathing through a single nostril
- Pursing your lips while breathing
- Verbal support from nearby people
Other treatments for hyperventilation
Other methods for treating hyperventilation include:
- Medication, if hyperventilation occurs frequently or is severe
- Oxygen administration, if hyperventilation has led to oxygen imbalance
- Psychological counseling to address the underlying cause of panic or anxiety
What you can do to improve your hyperventilation
To stop hyperventilating, or to prevent future hyperventilation, you may benefit from:
- Engaging in regular physical activity
- Practicing breathing techniques
- Practicing relaxation techniques
Some complementary treatments may help some people to better deal with hyperventilation. These treatments, sometimes referred to as alternative therapies, are used in conjunction with traditional medical treatments. Complementary treatments are not meant to substitute for traditional medical care. Be sure to notify your doctor if you are consuming nutritional supplements or homeopathic (nonprescription) remedies as they may interact with the prescribed medical therapy.
Complementary treatments may include:
- Massage therapy
- Nutritional dietary supplements, herbal remedies, tea beverages, and similar products
Because hyperventilation leads to imbalances in oxygen and carbon dioxide, which your body needs in order to function, the complications of hyperventilation can be very severe, even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you. Complications of hyperventilation include:
- Inability to participate normally in activities
- Loss of consciousness