Panic attack or hyperventilation is a state of breathing faster or deeper than normal.
Healthy breathing is when there is a balance between breathing in and breathing out. Hyperventilation is caused by exhaling more than you in hale. This causes an in rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body.
These attacks are rare, with most people reporting occurrences of 1 to 2 times in their lifetime. There can be many causes of hyperventilation and common triggers include emotions of stress, anxiety, depression, or anger.
Occasionally, hyperventilation from panic can be related to a specific phobia, such as a fear of heights, dying, or closed-in spaces (claustrophobia) and often, panic and hyperventilation become a vicious cycle.
The cause of hyperventilation cannot always be determined with sufficient accuracy (especially in the early stages) within the pre-hospital environment. Therefore you should always presume hyperventilation is secondary to hypoxia or another underlying respiratory disorder until proven otherwise.
Hyperventilation may occur secondary to a life threatening condition such as asthma or anaphylaxis.
Recognition of hyperventilation
- Previous history of panic attacks or hyperventilation
- Immediate history of emotional event
- Fast, shallow rate of breathing
- Chest tightness or pain
- Pins and needles/tingling in the hands, face and around the lip
- Hands in spasm (claws)
First aid for hyperventilation
- Remove the patient from any distressing triggers
- Attempt to control their breathing by ‘coaching’ – get them to copy your breathing pattern
- Assess for any underlying causes: is this an asthma or anaphylactic attack
- Obtain medical help if symptoms do not resolve
- Want to learn more about first aid? Why not sign up to one of our free online first aid courses!
When to seek treatment for hyperventilation
Hyperventilation can be a serious issue. Symptoms can last 20 to 30 minutes. You should seek treatment for hyperventilation when the following symptoms occur:
- Rapid, deep breathing for the first time
- Hyperventilation that gets worse, even after trying home care options
- Feeling anxious, nervous, or tense
- Frequent sighing or yawning
- Pounding and racing heartbeat
- Problems with balance, lightheadedness, or vertigo
- Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth
- Chest tightness, fullness, pressure, tenderness, or pain