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Hyperventilation is a state of rapid and deep breathing, also known as overbreathing.

Normally when we breathe, we inhale oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. In hyperventilation, we end up exhaling more than we inhale. As a result, the carbon dioxide pressure in the alveoli (bubble-like air-filled sacs in the lungs) and arteries reduces. This causes the arteries of the brain (cerebral arteries) to constrict or become narrower. The pH of the patient’s arteries also increases, causing respiratory alkalosis. 

Alkalosis is a condition in which the blood pH goes over 7.45 or becomes too alkaline. Respiratory alkalosis causes symptoms like:

This is when the body kicks into action and starts breaking down glucose to produce lactic and pyruvic acid in the body. These two acids help in providing oxygen to the body.

When the frequency of hyperventilation episodes increases, it is called hyperventilation syndrome. With the help of regular exercises, breathing techniques and stress reduction, hyperventilation can be managed.

  1. Hyperventilation symptoms
  2. Hyperventilation causes
  3. How to prevent hyperventilation
  4. Hyperventilation treatment and tips

Hyperventilation symptoms

Each episode of hyperventilation goes on for about 20-30 minutes. The common symptoms that can be seen during this period are:

  • Breathlessness
  • Tightness around the chest
  • Frequent sighing
  • Rapid breathing
  • Anxiety
  • Tingling in fingers, arms and even mouth
  • Muscle stiffness
  • Cold hands and feet
  • Loss of balance 
  • Trembling hands
  • Rapid heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Palpitations (sensation of a pounding, racing heart)

The less common symptoms of hyperventilation are:

Hyperventilation causes

Hyperventilation may occur because of:

  • Certain medical conditions: Hyperventilation can occur due to some serious medical conditions like strokepneumothoraxasthmasepsiscongestive heart failurepulmonary embolismhyperthyroidism and myocardial infarction (heart attack).
  • High fever: Hyperventilation can be seen in a person suffering from a high-grade fever.
  • Medications: Drugs like anaesthetics and sedatives can lead to hyperventilation. Overuse of aspirin can also lead to hyperventilation.
  • Higher altitude: Rapid breathing at a high altitude - that is, above 6,000 feet or 2,000 meters - is a natural response to an increased altitude. (Read more: Altitude sickness)
  • Anxiety and stress: Emotional stress and social pressure sometimes build up insecurities in a person which can lead to hyperventilation at times.
  • Intense exercise: Heavy exercises can lead to hyperventilation in a person. (Read more: Workout injuries)

How to prevent hyperventilation

You can prevent hyperventilation in the following ways:

  • Practice abdominal breathing: If you feel that you might start hyperventilating soon, try this technique: place one hand on your chest and the other one on your belly. Now, take a deep breath in through your nose and fill all the air in your belly. While exhaling, push your belly in to remove all the air. The hand on your chest should not move at all as you perform abdominal breathing.
  • Talk about your fears: Speak to your family, friends or a counsellor to relieve your anxiety. 
  • Avoid coffee: Reduce the intake of caffeine - in the form of coffee, tea or soft drinks - as this can increase your anxiety.
  • Workout: Do aerobic exercises as they will help you inhale and exhale better, which helps in reducing anxiety.
  • Get adequate rest: Sleep for at least eight hours, as it will help you stay calm and help take your attention away from negative thoughts.

Hyperventilation treatment and tips

Hyperventilation can be managed in the following ways:

  • If the episode is happening to someone else in front of you, reassure the person that they are going to be just fine in a few minutes. This will help them to calm down a little bit. 
  • If you are having the episode, do not panic, just loosen your clothing. Remove all the tight clothing if you can - like tight belts, waistbands, girdles, bras and skintight jeans.
  • Try abdominal breathing when you get the hyperventilation episode. 
  • Pinch one nostril, purse your lips and try to breathe in from the other nostril. This will end the episode much sooner.
  • Pay attention to your breath, try to slow your breath down to one breath every five seconds. This helps to reduce the symptoms soon.
  • If none of these measures work, then give the person a paper bag to breathe into. Make sure they cover their nose and mouth with the bag and then breathe in it. This will help in maintaining carbon dioxide levels.
  • Do not give a paper bag to a person with any heart or lung problems like coronary artery disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), stroke or pulmonary embolism. In such conditions call for medical help.
  • If hyperventilation continues for more than 30 minutes, call the doctor immediately.

Read more: Panic attack and disorder

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