How To Treat Hyperventilation Syndrome

Keep Calm and Don't Breathe So Fast

Depressed man
Anxiety and hyperventilation syndrome go hand in hand. Richard Wareham Fotografie / Getty Images

The amount we breathe is based on our metabolism. If we need more oxygen or need to get rid of excess carbon dioxide—or have too much acid in the bloodstream, but that's getting into some deep physiology—we breathe faster and deeper. Conversely, if we have enough oxygen or are low on carbon dioxide, we breathe slowly and more shallowly. To learn more about the differences between hyperventilation and hyperventilation syndrome, see the end of this article.

Treatment for Hyperventilation Syndrome

Treatment for hyperventilation syndrome is all about treating the underlying anxiety feelings and making sure that the deep, rapid breathing is not due to a medical condition. The worst case scenario is to assume a patient is having a panic attack when it is actually a major medical emergency. Remember, when a person can't get enough oxygen, they could certainly feel panicky. When in doubt, err on the side of a medical emergency and seek help for potential shortness of breath.

NEVER BREATH INTO A PAPER BAG! This advice is commonly found on the internet and through other sources, but it does not necessarily solve the problem (low carbon dioxide). More importantly, it can cause dangerously low oxygen levels. There is no evidence that breathing into a paper bag will actually help in the case of hyperventilation syndrome.

Steps for Treatment

  1. Stay Safe. Patients with hyperventilation syndrome may have anxiety disorders that cause erratic or dangerous behavior. Mostly, they're just scared.
  2. Use a calm voice and demeanor to address the patient. Anxiety is contagious, but so is serenity. If you are calm, it will be easier for the patient to become calm. Hyperventilation syndrome is not a respiratory disease. It is an emotional condition. Staying calm is the most important method to help control it.
  3. Determine that the victim is actually suffering from hyperventilation syndrome. There are many causes of shortness of breath that can lead to breathing patterns similar to hyperventilation syndrome. Look for the symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome. Numbness and tingling in the fingers and lips are very common. Spasms in the hands and feet are also common.
  4. Encourage the victim to breath slow and deep. One trick is to have the victim hold his or her breath for as long as possible, then exhale and hold another breath. Have the victim repeat this exercise until he or she begins to feel less anxious.
  1. If the victim is complaining of chest pain that doesn't go away, especially with a history of heart disease, call 911.

Hyperventilation vs Hyperventilation Syndrome

Hyperventilation simply means to breath more than necessary. In other words, breathing faster and deeper due to some need other than a metabolic one. Hyperventilation syndrome refers to hyperventilation that is not due to a medical condition, but is instead caused by anxiety or a panic attack.

Hyperventilation syndrome is not life-threatening, but can lead to a significant decrease in carbon dioxide. Hyperventilation syndrome is scary and leads to increased anxiety, which makes the hyperventilation syndrome worse. It's a cycle that can, when left untreated in some people, lead to severe muscle spasms and possibly unconsciousness.

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Article Sources
  • Meuret, A., & Ritz, T. (2010). Hyperventilation in panic disorder and asthma: Empirical evidence and clinical strategies. International Journal Of Psychophysiology78(1), 68-79. doi:10.1016/j.ijpsycho.2010.05.006