Definition and Symptoms of Hyperventilation Syndrome

hyperventilation syndromeHyperventilation syndrome is rapid, shallow breathing that causes carbon dioxide levels in the blood to drop below normal.

As the balance between carbon dioxide and other gases in the blood is essential for normal pulmonary and cardiovascular function, the decrease triggers actions in the body designed to slow the breathing.

Key among these is temporary loss of consciousness (fainting), which returns breathing to the involuntary control of the brainstem and restores normal breathing patterns. People who are hyperventilating often feel as if they were not getting enough oxygen, though in fact they are getting plenty. Most often hyperventilation results from emotional stress, panic, or anxiety. Rarely, cardiovascular or pulmonary disturbances cause a similar breathing pattern. Chest X-RAY, blood tests, and electrocardiogram (ecg) can quickly determine whether this is the case.


The standard treatment for an active episode of hyperventilation is breathing slowly and purposefully. Breathing through only one nostril (holding the other nostril closed with the fingers) helps focus conscious intent on the breathing as well as reduce the amount of air entering the lungs.

Though once a common remedy for hyperventilation, breathing into a paper bag may allow carbon dioxide levels in the blood to rise too much. Doctors no longer recommend this method.

Once breathing returns to normal the oxygen-carbon dioxide balance in the blood does the same and symptoms such as dizziness or lightheadedness fade. Stress management methods such as meditation and yoga help lower overall anxiety levels, which reduces hyperventilation episodes. Breathing exercises are also helpful. Hyperventilation without underlying cardiovascular or pulmonary disease is not harmful to health.

See also HYPOXIA.

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