Hyperventilation Syndrome

What is hyperventilation syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome is a condition brought on by rapid, deep breathing. It can cause fainting. Hyperventilation can be very alarming because it may seem to be a more serious problem such as an asthma attack or stroke.

What is the cause?

The rapid, deep breathing most often occurs when you are anxious or upset. You are rarely even aware that you are breathing so fast.

When you breathe too fast and deeply, you breathe out a lot more carbon dioxide than normal. Less carbon dioxide in your body affects your nervous system and brain. This causes the symptoms of hyperventilation.

What are the symptoms?

The symptoms of hyperventilation usually start within a few minutes and can include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Numbness and tingling of the skin in the hands or around the mouth
  • Spasms or cramps in the hands and feet

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider or therapist will ask about your symptoms and medical history. He or she will make sure you do not have a medical illness or drug or alcohol problem that could cause the symptoms. Your provider may ask for a chest X-ray to make sure that you do not have any other chest or lung problems.

If you are having symptoms when you see your healthcare provider, you may have tests to check the level of oxygen in your blood. Usually this is done by clipping a small probe on the outside of your ear or finger. Sometimes a sample of blood is tested for levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide.

How is it treated?

If no physical problem is causing you to hyperventilate, seeing a counselor might help. A counselor can help you identify and treat the emotional problem that might be causing you to hyperventilate.

How can I take care of myself?

To prevent or relieve your symptoms, you need to get the balance of oxygen and carbon dioxide in your body back to normal. You can do this by closing your mouth and breathing slowly through your nose. Or for faster results, hold a paper bag tightly around your mouth and breathe in and out several times into the bag until you feel better. Both of these methods will let the carbon dioxide level rise in your lungs.

You can also:

  • Get support. Talk with family and friends.
  • Learn to manage stress. Ask for help at home and work when the load is too great to handle. Find ways to relax, for example take up a hobby, listen to music, watch movies, or take walks. Try deep breathing exercises when you feel stressed.
  • Take care of your physical health. Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night. Eat a healthy diet. Limit caffeine. If you smoke, quit. Avoid alcohol and drugs. Exercise according to your healthcare provider's instructions.
  • Check your medicines. To help prevent problems, tell your healthcare provider and pharmacist about all the medicines, natural remedies, vitamins, and other supplements that you take.
  • Contact your healthcare provider or therapist if you have any questions or your symptoms seem to be getting worse.

How can I help prevent hyperventilation?

If you tend to breathe too fast and deeply, make sure you know the symptoms. If you can recognize the symptoms early, you may be able to relax and slow down your breathing.

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