Hyperventilation is the abnormal, rapid and deep breathing. The normal breathing pattern is 12 to 20 breaths per minute, anything that goes beyond can be considered hyperventilation.
This acute condition can lead to a decrease in the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood. This sudden decrease in carbon dioxide can cause physiological changes in the body. Hyperventilation is characterized by shortness of breath, light-headedness and a rapid heart rate. It can also lead to symptoms that include anxiety, tingling or numbness of the hand, sore chest muscles, and fainting.
Hyperventilation is a topic covered in St Mark James first aid programs. To learn how to recognize and manage victims of hyperventilation with “hands on” training enrol in St Mark James first aid classes.
Causes of hyperventilation
There are different causes of sudden hyperventilation that include:
- Emotional stress
- Intense exercise
- Certain medications
Acute hyperventilation can also be caused by underlying health conditions that include certain respiratory diseases and, in some cases, head injury. It most commonly occurs in people who are tense or nervous and breathe shallowly, and those with panic disorder. Travelling to high altitude (6,000 feet above sea level) can also trigger hyperventilation.
It is also possible for people to experience recurrent or chronic hyperventilation due to emphysema, asthma or lung cancer. In most cases, hyperventilation can be managed by practicing proper breathing techniques.
Signs and symptoms of hyperventilation
Acute hyperventilation often lasts for 20 to 30 minutes. A person experiencing hyperventilation may present symptoms that include:
- Feeling tense, anxious or nervous
- Frequent yawning or sighing
- Air hunger or feeling of shortness of breath
- Need to sit upright to get enough air
- Abnormally fast heartbeat, palpitations
- Light-headedness, loss of balance and coordination
- Tingling or numbness of the hands and feet
- Feeling of tightness, pressure or fullness in chest area
Other less common symptoms of hyperventilation include:
- Burping, bloating or gas pain
- Twitching of muscles
- Vision changes (tunnel vision or blurred vision)
- Problems with memory or concentration
- Loss of consciousness (fainting)
First aid for hyperventilation
It is often difficult to diagnose hyperventilation because there are many health conditions that can cause similar symptoms. If you suspect someone is experiencing hyperventilation, make sure you ask about respiratory diseases such as asthma, emphysema, respiratory infections, and other possible causes of rapid breathing. Some people may have emergency medicine available for treatment of acute attacks.
However, if the person presents unusually rapid deep breathing, you can provide the following first aid treatments.
- Keep the person calm by providing reassurance. This helps reduce anxiety and prevent further rapid breathing.
- Encourage the person to perform any of the following strategies to conserve carbon dioxide:
- Breathing techniques:
- Pursed-lip breathing – exhale through tightly pressed lips, as if blowing a candle.
- One-nostril breathing – with the mouth and one nostril covered, breathe out slowly (one breath every 5 seconds).
- Belly breathing – take slow, deep breaths from the abdomen.
- Paper bag:
- Using a small paper bag, loosely cover the mouth and nose. Breathe slowly into the bag and again re-breathe the air for at least 10 times. You may repeat this for up to 15 minutes.
3. Seek medical help if the symptoms do not improve after several minutes of performing these breathing techniques.
In many cases, these home treatments can effectively treat hyperventilation. However, medical treatment may be necessary for moderate to severe hyperventilation.