Understanding Hyperventilation Syndrome

When you breathe, you get oxygen from the air you inhale. You then let out carbon dioxide with the air you exhale. Hyperventilation syndrome is a pattern of breathing during which you breathe more quickly and deeply than normal. This can be very distressing to experience. If it goes on for some time, it can cause the level of carbon dioxide in the blood to get too low. This can lead to symptoms felt throughout the body.

What causes hyperventilation syndrome?

Hyperventilation syndrome may be caused from things such as:

  • Anxiety or panic (most common)

  • Pregnancy

  • Bleeding

  • Infection

  • Certain heart and lung problems

Symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome

Symptoms can include:

  • Fast or deep breathing

  • Shortness of breath or the feeling that you can’t get enough air

  • Anxiety, fear, panic, or strong feeling of dread or doom

  • Dizziness

  • Chest pain or squeezing in the chest

  • Fast, pounding, or skipping heartbeat

  • Sweating

  • Numbness or tingling around the mouth and in the fingers

  • Muscle cramps in the hands or feet

Treatment for hyperventilation syndrome

Treatment is focused on getting your breathing rate and level of carbon dioxide in the blood back to normal. If you are being treated in a hospital or healthcare provider’s office, the following may be done:

  • A healthcare provider may monitor the level of oxygen in your blood with a pulse oximeter.

  • A nurse or other healthcare provider will talk with you and help you to stay calm.

  • You may be asked to try various breathing exercises, such as pursed-lip breathing. This helps slow down your breathing. You may also be asked to hold your breath for short periods.

  • If needed, you may be told to breathe into a tube.

  • You may also be given medicine to help you relax.

How can hyperventilation syndrome be prevented?

To help prevent further episodes in the future, you may be told to try:

  • Breathing exercises

  • Relaxation methods such as meditation or progressive muscle relaxation

  • Regular exercise

  • Counseling or medicines to help manage an anxiety or panic disorder

Possible complications of hyperventilation syndrome

If the level of carbon dioxide becomes dangerously low, this is called hypocapnia. It can upset the acid-base balance in the blood and cause problems such as fainting and seizures.

Other possible complications of hyperventilation syndrome will vary depending on the cause.

When to call your healthcare provider

Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of these:

  • Fever of 100.4°F (38°C) or higher, or as directed

  • Symptoms that don’t get better with treatment, or symptoms that get worse

  • New symptoms