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What Is Hyperventilation? - Definition, Causes, Symptoms & Treatment

Instructor: Danielle Haak

Danielle has a PhD in Natural Resource Sciences and a MSc in Biological Sciences

Have you ever suddenly started breathing very fast and been unable to catch your breath? Why does this happen? Read this lesson to find out the causes of hyperventilation, the symptoms, and how to treat it!

What Is Hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation occurs when you breathe faster and deeper than normal. This type of breathing prevents adequate gas exchange from taking place in your lungs, and your blood loses carbon dioxide because you're taking in oxygen at an unusually fast rate. It can also be referred to as over breathing.

Causes of Hyperventilation

What causes hyperventilation to occur? The most common causes of sudden hyperventilation include stress, anxiety, physical exertion, fever, and some medications. Certain panic disorders and asthma may also cause hyperventilation. Women tend to experience it more than men, and it can occur at almost any age. If hyperventilation is chronic (long-lasting), it may be indicative of another disease, such as asthma, emphysema, or even lung cancer.

Symptoms of Hyperventilation

You already know that breathing quickly is the primary symptom. In addition, you may also experience feelings of anxiety, lightheadedness, tingling or numbness in the feet, hands, or mouth, and an irregular heart rate. Symptoms tend to last between 20-30 minutes and can cause further anxiety during an attack. Other symptoms include sighing, yawning, and what is called air hunger - needing to breathe and feeling like you can't get enough air in your lungs.

You may also experience some other symptoms that many people do not associate with hyperventilation. These include headaches, bloating, burping, sweating, blurred vision, trouble concentrating, or even fainting.

Treatment Options

For mild symptoms of hyperventilation, you can learn techniques to stop it from happening that you can perform at home. The goal is to raise the level of carbon dioxide in the blood, which is achieved by slowing down your breathing. You can achieve this by pinching one nostril shut and breathing through the other, breathing through pursed lips, or as you may have seen in the movies, breathing into a paper bag. This technique works because as you breathe into the bag, your carbon dioxide level increases. Thus, you will begin breathing in more carbon dioxide, adjusting your blood levels.

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