Hyperventilation: Causes and what to do
The body usually breathes automatically, without a person having to think about it. On average, people take about 12 to 15 breaths a minute.
A normal breathing rate allows oxygen to get into the lungs and carbon dioxide to leave. If a person hyperventilates, it upsets the balance of these gases by removing too much carbon dioxide from the body.
When the carbon dioxide levels become low, it can change the pH of the blood and lead to a condition called alkalosis, which may make a person feel weak or faint.
In this article, learn more about hyperventilation, the possible causes, and when to see a doctor.
Hyperventilation can cause the feeling of not getting enough air.
The main symptom of hyperventilation is fast breathing. Rapid breathing can cause low carbon dioxide levels in the body, which may lead to additional symptoms.
Symptoms that may occur along with hyperventilation include:
- numbness or tingling in the fingers
- a pounding heart
- a feeling that air is not getting into the lungs
- a headache
Hyperventilation is not a disease. Instead, it is a symptom of another condition or the result of emotional distress.
Possible causes of hyperventilation include:
Fear, panic, or stress
One of the most common causes of hyperventilation is emotional distress, including panic, fear, or anxiety. One study of people experiencing hyperventilation found that the most common additional symptom was fear.
About half of the people in the study also had a psychiatric condition. Some doctors refer to hyperventilation due to emotions as "hyperventilation syndrome."
Some types of infections in the body can lead to hyperventilation. Infections such as pneumonia can cause swelling and a buildup of fluid in the lungs, which could lead to fast breathing.
The brain plays an essential role in controlling breathing. If a person has a head injury, it can lead to changes in the breathing rate, including hyperventilation.
Additional symptoms of a head injury include a headache, nausea, and confusion. Anyone with a serious head injury should see a doctor immediately.
Certain lung diseases, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, can make breathing more difficult. The airways may narrow, making someone work harder to get air into the lungs, which could lead to rapid breathing.
If a lung disease causes hyperventilation, symptoms may also include wheezing, chest pain, and coughing.
If the body relies on fats for too long, byproducts called ketones can build up in the body. Hyperventilation is one of the symptoms of diabetic ketoacidosis. Other symptoms include nausea, excessive thirst, and frequent urination.
When a person is at a high altitude, the air pressure and oxygen level decrease, which can make breathing more difficult.
At a high altitude, the lungs have to work harder to get oxygen into the body. At an altitude of around 8,000 feet, a low oxygen level may lead to breathing problems, including hyperventilation.
In some people, hyperventilation may start at elevations lower than 8,000 feet. For example, people with asthma may have respiratory problems at lower altitudes.
A doctor may recommend an X-ray to diagnose the cause of hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation has many possible causes, so it is essential for a doctor to review all of a person's symptoms. They may carry out a physical exam and ask a person about their medical history.
A chest X-ray and blood tests can help diagnose some causes of hyperventilation, such as infections.
An arterial blood gas test measures the amount of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood. This test can determine if hyperventilation has lowered carbon dioxide levels in the blood.
Treatment for hyperventilation is intended to slow down fast breathing and return the rate to normal.
A doctor will aim to treat the underlying cause of hyperventilation to prevent it from happening in the future. For example, treating physical conditions that are causing hyperventilation, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, will bring the respiratory rate back to normal.
In instances where hyperventilation is due to physiological issues, such as fear, anxiety, or panic attacks, treatment may include:
- anti-anxiety medications
- cognitive behavior therapy (CBT)
- talk therapy or counseling
If hyperventilation is mild and occurs due to anxiety or stress, at-home treatment may be enough to return a person's breathing rate to normal.
Home remedies that may help treat hyperventilation include:
- Belly breathing, where a person focuses on breathing from their diaphragm instead of from the chest.
- Nostril breathing, where a person alternates between blocking one nostril and breathing through the other.
- Lying down, take off any constricting clothing, such as belts, ties, or tight bras, and focus on relaxing.
- Trying meditation to focus on slowing the breathing.
When to seek emergency care
A person should seek emergency care the first time they experience hyperventilation.
In some cases, it is difficult to determine if hyperventilation is due to a medical condition or emotional stress.
If hyperventilation is severe or if it is the first time a person experiences it, it is best to seek emergency medical attention.
If the following symptoms accompany hyperventilation, seek urgent care:
- chest pain
- blue or grayish lips, skin, or fingers
A wide variety of emotional and physical issues can cause hyperventilation. Some conditions leading to hyperventilation, such as diabetic ketoacidosis, are a medical emergency.
However, severe or life-threatening causes of hyperventilation usually occur with additional symptoms.
If a person is hyperventilating, it is essential that they try to stay calm and use home-care methods, such as nostril breathing or belly breathing to slow the breathing rate and return it to normal.
In cases where hyperventilation is due to a medical condition, treating the underlying problem usually stabilizes a person's breathing.
In instances when hyperventilation has an emotional cause, learning methods to reduce and manage stress can be useful.
Whatever the cause of hyperventilation, it is vital to see a doctor to find an effective treatment option.