What is hyperventilation?

Jump to

Hyperventilation: Overview

Hyperventilation is breathing that is deeper and more rapid than normal. It causes a decrease in the amount of a gas in the blood. (This gas is called carbon dioxide, or CO2.) The decrease may make you feel lightheaded. You may have a rapid heartbeat and be short of breath. It also can lead to numbness or tingling in your hands or feet, anxiety, fainting, and sore chest muscles.

Some causes of sudden hyperventilation include anxiety, fever, some medicines, intense exercise, and emotional stress. It also can occur because of problems caused by asthma or emphysema or after a head injury. But it occurs most often in people who are nervous or tense, breathe shallowly, and have other medical problems, such as lung diseases or panic disorder. It occurs more often in women than men. Most people who have it are 15 to 55 years old. It may occur when people travel to elevations over 6000 ft (2000 m) . Symptoms can be like ones from another more serious medical problem, such as a lung problem.

Acute (sudden) hyperventilation is usually triggered by acute stress, anxiety, or emotional upset. Chronic (recurring) hyperventilation may be a lasting problem for people with other diseases, such as asthma, emphysema, or lung cancer.

Many women have problems with hyperventilation when they are pregnant. But it usually goes away on its own after the baby is born.

In many cases, hyperventilation can be controlled by learning proper breathing techniques.

Symptoms of hyperventilation

Symptoms usually last 20 to 30 minutes. They may include:

  • Feeling anxious, nervous, or tense.
  • Frequent sighing or yawning.
  • Feeling that you can't get enough air (air hunger) or need to sit up to breathe.
  • A pounding and racing heartbeat.
  • Problems with balance, lightheadedness, or vertigo.
  • Numbness or tingling in the hands, feet, or around the mouth.
  • Chest tightness, fullness, pressure, tenderness, or pain.

Other symptoms may occur less often. You may not realize that they are directly related to hyperventilation. These symptoms can include:

  • Headache.
  • Gas, bloating, or burping.
  • Twitching.
  • Sweating.
  • Vision changes, such as blurred vision or tunnel vision.
  • Problems with concentration or memory.
  • Loss of consciousness (fainting).

Hyperventilation isn't a disease. But you may need to be checked by your doctor if you keep having symptoms. If you have recurring symptoms, you might be diagnosed with a condition called hyperventilation syndrome (HVS).

Treatment for hyperventilation depends on the cause. Home treatment is usually all that's needed for mild symptoms. Medical treatment may be needed for hyperventilation symptoms that are moderate to severe, that last for a long time, that come back, or that interfere with your daily activities. Treatment usually includes reassurance, stress reduction measures, breathing lessons, or medicine.


Hyperventilation is breathing that is deeper and more rapid than normal, which causes the amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the blood to drop too low. This may result in lightheadedness, a rapid heartbeat, shortness of breath, numbness or tingling in the hands or feet, anxiety, fainting, and sore chest muscles.

Some causes of hyperventilation include extreme anxiety, asthma, emphysema, head injury, fever, exposure to altitude above 6000 ft (2000 m) , and some medicines.

In many cases, hyperventilation can be controlled with home treatment, such as focusing on proper breathing techniques.

How can you care for hyperventilation in children?

Breathing methods to teach your child

Teach your child to always try to control his or her breathing or to belly-breathe first. If these techniques do not work and your child does not have other health problems, you might have your child try breathing in and out of a paper bag. Teach yourself first and then teach your child.

  • Breathe through pursed lips, as if you are whistling, or pinch one nostril and breathe through your nose. It is harder to hyperventilate through your nose or through pursed lips because you cannot move as much air.
  • Slow your breathing to 1 breath every 5 seconds, or slow enough that symptoms gradually go away.
  • Try belly-breathing, which fills your lungs fully, slows your breathing rate, and helps you relax.
    • Place one hand on your belly just below the ribs. Place the other hand on your chest. You can do this while standing, but it may be more comfortable while you are lying on the floor with your knees bent.
    • Take a deep breath through your nose. As you breathe in, let your belly push your hand out. Keep your chest still.
    • As you breathe out through pursed lips, feel your hand go down. Use the hand on your belly to help you push all the air out. Take your time breathing out.
    • Repeat these steps 3 to 10 times. Take your time with each breath.

Using a paper bag

  • Have your child take 6 to 12 easy, natural breaths, with a small paper bag held over his or her mouth and nose. Then remove the bag from the nose and mouth and have your child take easy, natural breaths.
  • Next, have your child try belly-breathing.
  • Switch between these techniques until the hyperventilation stops.

Do not try this method with your child if:

  • Your child has any heart of lung problems.
  • Rapid breathing happens at a high altitude. Breathing faster than normal is a natural response to high altitude.

Follow these safety measures when using this method:

  • Do not use a plastic bag.
  • Do not have your child breathe continuously into a paper bag. Have him or her take 6 to 12 natural breaths with a paper bag held over the mouth and nose, and then remove the bag from the nose and mouth.
  • Do not hold the bag for your child if your child is able to hold the bag over his or her own mouth and nose.

What causes hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation can be directly caused by:

  • A medical condition or disease. Examples include:
    • Asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD).
    • A blood clot, such as a deep vein thrombosis (DVT) or pulmonary embolus.
    • Heart failure.
    • Fluid in the lungs, such as pulmonary edema.
    • Infection, such as pneumonia.
    • Scarring of the lungs, such as pulmonary fibrosis.
    • Lung disease.
    • Panic disorder.
    • Thyroid problems, such as Graves' disease and hyperthyroidism.
  • A rapid increase in altitude.
  • Exercise.
  • Fever.
  • Ingestion or overdose of drugs, including amphetamine, aspirin, asthma medicines, cocaine, iron, LSD, or methamphetamine.
  • Nervous system problems, such as head injuries, encephalitis, meningitis, or stroke.
  • Physical problems that cause pressure on or within the chest, such as:
    • Chest wall injury.
    • Collapsed lung (pneumothorax).
    • Pregnancy.
    • Severe abdominal fluid retention (ascites).
  • Situations where there is a psychological advantage for a person to have a sudden, dramatic illness.

Hyperventilation symptoms can be similar to symptoms that are caused by another problem.

Using a Paper Bag to Control Hyperventilation

Using a paper bag to control hyperventilation

Try these steps to control hyperventilation

  • Take 6 to 12 easy, natural breaths, with a small paper bag held over your mouth and nose. Then remove the bag from your nose and mouth and take easy, natural breaths.
  • Next, try belly-breathing (diaphragmatic breathing).
  • Alternate these techniques until your hyperventilation stops.

If hyperventilation continues for longer than 30 minutes, call your doctor immediately.

Do not use a paper bag if:

  • You have any heart or lung problems, such as coronary artery disease, asthma, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD, emphysema), or a history of deep vein thrombosis, stroke, or pulmonary embolism.
  • Rapid breathing occurs at a high altitude [above 6000 ft (1829 m) ]. Breathing faster than normal is a natural response to an increased altitude.

Follow these precautions when using the bag method:

  • Do not use a plastic bag.
  • Do not breathe continuously into a paper bag. Take 6 to 12 natural breaths, with a paper bag held over your mouth and nose, then remove the bag from your nose and mouth.
  • Do not hold the bag for the person who is hyperventilating. Allow the person to hold the bag over his or her own mouth and nose.

Hyperventilation: When to call

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You hyperventilate for longer than 30 minutes.
  • You hyperventilate often.
  • Your symptoms do not improve with home treatment.
  • Your symptoms become more severe or more frequent.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

©2011-2024 Healthwise, Incorporated

The content above contains general health information provided by Healthwise, Incorporated, and reviewed by its medical experts. This content should not replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Not all treatments or services described are offered as services by us. For recommended treatments, please consult your healthcare provider.

Specialized emergency services

Find care near you

Comprehensive care

Find an ER near you