What Causes Hyperventilation?


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You know your breathing is healthy when there is a balance between your inhaling of oxygen and exhaling of carbon dioxide. When that balance is disrupted, though, it becomes a condition known as hyperventilation, which is when a person breathes more than what is needed.

While it is referred to as over breathing, hyperventilation may leave one feeling breathless because of the rapid deep-breathing pattern that comes with it. And since the individual tends to exhale more than inhale during a hyperventilation episode, the condition eventually causes a rapid decline of carbon dioxide levels in the body, which may lead to serious consequences when left untreated.

Understanding Hyperventilation

When there is a low level of carbon dioxide in the blood, such as what happens during hyperventilation, the individual may experience certain symptoms.

During hyperventilation, the person tends to breathe fast and deep—and he or she may not be aware of it. However, one may likely be aware of other symptoms that come along with overbreathing, such as feeling lightheaded, weak, or unable to think straight; feeling breathless; bloating or belching; fast, pounding heartbeat; and chest pain. Breathing in excess also causes the calcium levels in the blood to drop, thereby affecting the nervous system through symptoms such as muscle spasms, particularly in the hands and feet, dry mouth, and numbness or a tingling sensation around the mouth or in the arms.

Why Hyperventilation Occurs

No single factor may cause a person to hyperventilate. While hyperventilation may be caused by emotional causes, such as in the case of a panic attack, it can be because of a medical problem known as hyperventilation syndrome, wherein overbreathing occurs in more frequent episodes.

Similar medical conditions that may directly cause hyperventilation are asthma and other forms of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), heart failure, pulmonary edema, blood clot, infection, scarring of the lungs, thyroid problems, or lung disease. It may also occur in people with problems in the nervous system, such as stroke, a head injury, meningitis, or encephalitis, as well as in individuals with physical conditions such as injury to the chest wall, a collapsed lung, pregnancy, and ascites, or a severe abdominal fluid retention.

Aside from medical causes, hyperventilation may be triggered by ingestion or overdose of certain drugs such as aspirin, amphetamine, asthma medications, cocaine, LSD, or methamphetamine. Exercise and a rapid increase in altitude are also possible causes of overbreathing.

Treating Hyperventilation

If you experience an acute case of hyperventilation, try to stay as calm as possible and start breathing through pursed lips. If you can’t find a paper bag, cup your hands and breathe slowly into them, attempting to breathe into the belly or the diaphragm

+instead of into the chest. When possible, gradually hold your breath for about ten to fifteen seconds at a time until the condition subsides.

However, if such method does not relieve hyperventilation or if you are experiencing rapid breathing for the first time, it’s best to seek emergency care right away. This is also the ideal intervention if you are in pain, bleeding, having a fever, or experiencing other notable symptoms.

What to Expect at Your Doctor’s Office

If you are seeking professional advice for hyperventilation for the first time, your doctor will perform a routine physical exam and conduct an interview about your symptoms. You may be asked to breathe in a certain way to cause hyperventilation so your provider can watch and evaluate how you breathe. Aside from checking your vital signs, your doctor may also want to check your oxygen saturation levels through a Nihon Kohden SpO2 sensor.

Expect certain tests to be ordered, which include blood tests, to monitor the oxygen and carbon dioxide levels in your blood; electrocardiography, to check on your heart’s activity; chest CT scan; ventilation or perfusion scan of the lungs to measure lung circulation and breathing, as well as chest X-rays.

How to Prevent Hyperventilation

Hyperventilation can be prevented through various breathing and relaxation methods, which include alternating nostril, deep belly, and full-body breathing; meditation; and mind and body activities such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong. Of course, it helps a ton to exercise regularly and to live an overall healthy lifestyle.

While hyperventilation is treatable, there can be underlying conditions that may be causing it, which is why it is still important to consult your doctor about it to get to the root of the problem and to receive appropriate treatment right away.

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