A healthy breathing (respiratory) rate for an adult is 12 to 20 breaths a minute. For babies and children, it’s 20 to 30 breaths a minute. When a person breathes at a significantly faster rate than this, it’s called hyperventilation.
Hyperventilation is often caused by stress, anxiety or panic. Somewhat counter-intuitively, it can lead to a person feeling breathless. This is because breathing involves inhaling oxygen and exhaling carbon dioxide. Hyperventilation leads to too much carbon dioxide being expelled from the body. Low levels of carbon dioxide in the blood is what causes breathlessness and the other other symptoms associated with hyperventilation.
Many situations can bring about hyperventilation including
It’s often obvious that the person is breathing rapidly. You could confirm that by checking the respiratory rate to see if it is faster than 20 to 30 breaths per minute, though this is usually not necessary.
Those experiencing hyperventilation often have the feeling that they cannot get enough air.
Hyperventilation is often caused by stress to begin with. On top of that, the stress of not getting enough air can aggravate the panicky behaviour and cause further weakness and confusion.
Insufficient carbon dioxide in the blood leads to feelings of dizziness, faintness and lightheadedness.
Overbreathing can cause calcium levels in the blood to drop, leading to central nervous system symptoms such as numbness and tingling in arms, feet and around the mouth.
Known as tetany, this is another common result of the reduced blood carbon dioxide levels due to hyperventilation.
You might have seen fictional characters use a paper bag to cover their mouth and nose when they are hyperventilating. However, medical opinion is divided on this, so it is not recommended.
If this is the first time the care receiver has hyperventilated, take them to a doctor for evaluation right away. It’s possible that it’s just a one-off, but don’t assume that. Find out from a trusted medical professional.
If this is not the first time the care receiver has hyperventilated and it is a regular occurrence that gets in the way of their everyday activities, they may have hyperventilation syndrome or an anxiety problem. Therapy may be necessary in this case to manage the condition more decisively.
Article reviewed by Dr Kenneth Koh Eu Min, Medical Director and Co-founder, OneCare Medical