Treating Hyperventilation by Breathing into a Paper Bag

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When someone is hyperventilating on TV or in a movie, you often see them take out a brown paper bag and begin breathing into it. You may have even seen someone use the paper bag method in real life—maybe you've tried it yourself.

While a TV character might get relief from the symptoms of hyperventilation using the method, it doesn't always work in real life. It's possible that the trick can work in some cases of true hyperventilation, but it's not the ideal treatment.

Even more importantly, in some instances, it may be dangerous. If you think you're hyperventilating but are actually experiencing symptoms of a more serious medical condition, you may be putting your health—if not your life—at risk.

Theory

Hyperventilation syndrome is most often associated with panic disorders. When a person has a panic attack, the psychological condition can make them breathe too fast, which causes the body to lose carbon dioxide (CO2).

While it's true that CO2 is a metabolic byproduct in the air you exhale, you still need to a minimum amount in your bloodstream to maintain your body's pH balance.

When you lose a significant amount of CO2 due to hyperventilation, the tissues in your body can start to malfunction.

The idea behind breathing into a paper bag or mask is that rebreathing exhaled air helps your body put CO2 back into your blood.

While breathing into a paper bag to treat hyperventilation can work in theory, many doctors (and patients) don't find it to be a particularly quick or effective method.

If you suffer from frequent panic attacks and anxiety and may be suffering from a chronic case of hyperventilation. Your doctor can help you find the best treatment and management strategies.

Safety

While there hasn't been enough research to definitively prove the paper bag method is harmful, there isn't any real evidence proving it helps, either.

Interestingly, what research has found is that there may be a link between high concentrations of CO2 and panic attacks— meaning artificially increasing CO2 in inhaled air (as is the case when you breathe into a paper bag) would be more likely to trigger feelings of panic in people with anxiety.

Using the paper bag method is most dangerous when someone has mistaken respiratory distress for hyperventilation when it is actually a symptom of a more serious medical condition.

Common symptoms of hyperventilation include tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, and dizziness—all of which may also occur during heart attacks.

If someone having a heart attack opts to use the paper bag method because they think they're hyperventilating, the decision may delay potentially life-saving medical intervention.

Furthermore, since breathing into a paper bag restricts how much fresh air a person can breathe in (which reduces blood oxygen levels) it may worsen the underlying medical condition. Heart attacks often occur due to reduced oxygen to the heart.

Symptoms of other serious conditions can also overlap with hyperventilation and may be worsened by using the paper bag method instead of seeking medical care.

Other conditions to be aware of include:

  • Head injuries: If a person experiences a head injury, it can lead to changes in breathing. Without the presence of physical symptoms, a head injury can go undetected if hyperventilation is the only cause considered. Additional symptoms of a head injury include headache, confusion, and severe nausea.
  • Lung disease: Lung conditions, such as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) and asthma, can make breathing difficult. Additional symptoms, such as wheezing, cough, and chest pain distinguish these conditions from hyperventilation.
  • Diabetic ketoacidosis: Diabetic ketoacidosis can cause hyperventilation. Additional symptoms include nausea, excessive thirst, and frequent urination. Go to the emergency room if you are throwing up for more than two hours, your breath smells fruity, you are confused and tired, and/or you're struggling to breathe.
  • High altitude exposure: At high altitudes, there is less oxygen available, which can cause problems for people with lung conditions. Even in people without breathing problems, high altitude can lead to hyperventilation. To avoid complications, assess and treat symptoms appropriately rather than attempting to use a paper bag when at high altitudes.

Treatment

Treatment for hyperventilation aims to slow down and return breathing to a normal pattern. The preferred and safest treatment for a hyperventilation episode is to stay calm. People should be encouraged to practice breathing slowly and not too deeply.

Calming breathing exercises have been shown to be as effective, if not more so, as breathing into a paper bag to treat hyperventilation in people with anxiety disorders. These exercises also don't pose an additional health risk.

Researchers from Brunel University in the United Kingdom confirmed these findings when they sought to compare relaxation therapy versus breathing therapy for the management of hyperventilation. The study found a significant reduction in the frequency and severity of hyperventilation attacks in the group who used breathing exercises.

Breathing exercises are not your only options. Your doctor will help find ways to treat the underlying causes of hyperventilation, which is the best way to prevent it from occurring.

As hyperventilation is often related to psychological stress from fear, anxiety and panic attacks, some potential options for treatment include:

When to Seek Emergency Care

With or without hyperventilation, some symptoms could indicate a serious, life-threatening condition.

Symptoms You Shouldn't Ignore

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical attention immediately.

  • Chest pain
  • Blue lips, skin or fingers
  • Fainting
  • Confusion
  • Fever

There are times when it will be difficult to determine if hyperventilation is the result of anxiety, stress, or a more serious health condition. As a general rule, if you are experiencing severe hyperventilation or experiencing it for the first time, it's best to seek medical care.

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