What Is Hyperventilation? (Overbreathing)?

Rapid and shallow breathing also known as over-breathing

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Hyperventilation, also known as over-breathing or excessive breathing, is when a person's breathing speeds up and deepens. The person may or may not know they are hyperventilating. Hyperventilating can happen for many reasons, be they emotional or medical. Treatment is necessary to re-establish proper oxygen and carbon dioxide balance in the blood.

In this article, you will learn more about the symptoms of hyperventilation, what causes a person to hyperventilate, symptoms associated with hyperventilating, and what treatments are available for hyperventilating.

Person with shortness of breath due to cystic lung disease

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Symptoms

Hyperventilating is characterized by rapid and deep breathing. But these are not the only symptoms to be expected. A person may also experience any or all of the following symptoms associated with hyperventilating:

  • Feeling as though you can't "catch your breath" or regulate your breathing
  • Feeling lightheaded and dizzy
  • Physical weakness
  • Feeling confused
  • Chest pains
  • Heart palpitations
  • Belching
  • Bloating
  • Dry mouth
  • Hand and feet muscle spasms
  • Numbness and tingling in the arms or around the mouth
  • Sleeping difficulties

When to See a Healthcare Provider

If it is your first time experiencing hyperventilation, consider it a medical emergency and seek help from your healthcare provider. If you are experiencing other symptoms, like fever, bleeding, or pain, those are also signs that it's time to talk to your healthcare provider. If hyperventilating is getting worse, even after at-home treatment, it's also a good idea to talk to your healthcare provider.

Causes

People can start hyperventilating for different reasons. Some reasons are emotional while others are considered medical reasons. Understanding why you're experiencing hyperventilation is important for preventing it in the future and addressing underlying medical conditions contributing to it.

Emotional causes of hyperventilation include:

Medical causes of hyperventilation include:

If you're experiencing hyperventilation and do not know why or cannot stop it, it's an emergency requiring medical attention. People can lose consciousness from hyperventilating. While managing hyperventilating at home, sit down to avoid injury or falling when lightheaded or dizzy.

Treatment

The goal of treatment for hyperventilation is the same no matter the cause. Treatment methods revolve around raising your blood levels of carbon dioxide. In addition, there are at-home ways of coping with hyperventilation.

Having someone provide reassuring words and phrases can help calm down your breathing. For example, having a family member or friend say things like "you're doing fine" or "you're not going to die" can help relax your breathing. You can also reassure yourself with these phrases.

Using pursed lip breathing (breathing like you were blowing out a candle) to reduce the amount of oxygen going into the bloodstream is also an effective at-home treatment.

If you live with an anxiety disorder, you can also try engaging in mindful breathing exercises to help prevent hyperventilation. Twice-daily breathing exercises may be more effective and accessible for preventing hyperventilation in people with anxiety disorders than cognitive behavioral therapy.

Anxiety Disorders and Hyperventilation

If you have an anxiety disorder and are experiencing more frequent episodes of hyperventilating, this is also a sign it's time to consider speaking with your healthcare provider or a mental health professional. Together, you can determine what may be triggering the increased frequency and how to manage them to prevent hyperventilating.

Summary

Hyperventilating is when a person experiences rapid and deep breathing. Symptoms can include feeling dizzy, weak, and confused. Severe hyperventilation can cause a person to pass out (lose consciousness). Treatment for hyperventilation is about helping the person lower their blood levels of carbon dioxide and calm their breathing. For people with anxiety, controlled breathing exercises are the way to stop hyperventilating at the moment.

A Word From Verywell

If you are trying to help someone who is hyperventilating, please remember that you must remain calm. Use a soft tone, slow and gentle movements, and avoid going into panic mode. Panicking will only increase anxiety, which can worsen matters for your loved one. Instead, you can remind them they are safe with you and help them focus on breathing exercises. If you're unsure how to help, stay with the person, and call 9-1-1.

7 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Michelle Pugle
Michelle Pugle, BA, MA, is an expert health writer with nearly a decade of contributing accurate and accessible health news and information to authority websites and print magazines. Her work focuses on lifestyle management, chronic illness, and mental health. Michelle is the author of Ana, Mia & Me: A Memoir From an Anorexic Teen Mind.