What Is Hyperventilation?
Hyperventilation is a condition in which you suddenly start to breathe very quickly. Healthy breathing occurs with a healthy balance between breathing in oxygen and breathing out carbon dioxide. While hyperventilating, you upset this balance by exhaling more than you inhale. This causes a rapid reduction in carbon dioxide in the body.
Low carbon dioxide levels eventually lead to narrowing of the blood vessels that supply blood to the brain. This reduction in blood supply to the brain leads to symptoms like lightheadedness and tingling in the fingers. Severe hyperventilation can lead to loss of consciousness.
For some people, hyperventilation is rare, and only occurs as an occasional, panicked response to fear, stress, or a phobia. For others, this condition occurs regularly as a typical response to emotional states, such as depression, anxiety, or anger. When hyperventilation is a frequent occurrence, this is known as hyperventilation syndrome.
Hyperventilation is also known as:
- rapid (or fast) deep breathing
- over breathing
- respiratory rate (or breathing)—rapid and deep
Common Causes of Hyperventilation
There are many factors that can lead to hyperventilation. Most commonly, this condition results from anxiety, panic, nervousness, or stress. It often takes the form of a panic attack.
Other causes include:
- the use of stimulants
- drug overdose (aspirin overdose, for example)
- severe pain
- an infection in the lungs
- lung diseases, such as asthma or COPD
- conditions of the heart, such as a heart attack
When to Seek Treatment for Hyperventilation
Hyperventilation can be a serious issue. 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
In acute cases of hyperventilation, it is important to try to stay calm. Having someone with you to coach you through the episode may be helpful. The goal of treatment during an episode is to increase carbon dioxide levels in your body and work to slow your breathing rate.
To help treat acute hyperventilation, you can:
- breathe through pursed lips
- breathe into a paper bag or cupped hands
- attempt to breathe into your belly (diaphragm) rather than your chest
- cover your mouth and try alternative nostril breathing
Alternative nostril breathing involves covering your mouth and alternating breathing through each nostril. For instance, with mouth covered, close the right nostril and breathe in through the left. Then alternate by closing the left nostril and breathing in through the right. Repeat this pattern until breathing has returned to normal.
If you have hyperventilation syndrome, you will want to figure out what is causing it. If you suffer from anxiety or stress, you may want to see a psychologist to help you understand and treat your condition. Learning stress reduction and breathing techniques will help to control your condition.
Acupuncture may also be an effective treatment for hyperventilation syndrome (Gibson, et al., 2007). Acupuncture is an alternative treatment based on ancient Chinese medicine. It involves placing thin needles into various areas of the body to promote healing. The needles may improve blood circulation due to their ability to stimulate the nerves, muscles, and body tissues (Mayo).
To prevent hyperventilation, it is helpful to learn breathing and relaxation techniques, such as:
- alternate nostril breathing, deep belly breathing, and full body breathing
- mind/body exercises, such as tai chi, yoga, or qi gong
Exercising regularly (walking, running, bicycling, etc.) can also help to prevent hyperventilation.