Hyperventilation, or overbreathing, is a condition in which a person breathes deeper and more rapidly than normal. As a result of exhaling more than they inhale, the blood’s carbon dioxide levels become low, which constricts the arteries that carry blood to the brain.
This can cause a variety of symptoms from dizziness and lightheadedness, to chest pain, numbness, and confusion. Hyperventilation is a rare occurrence for most, and when it does happen it’s usually a response to fear, phobias, or emotional states like anger. In some cases, however, it may be indicative of a more serious health condition. The following are 12 possible medical causes of hyperventilation.
Possibly the most common cause of hyperventilation is anxiety. The Calm Clinic points out, however, that “…hyperventilation is to blame for dozens of the worst symptoms of anxiety,” which is why many refer to it as its own disorder—known as ‘hyperventilation syndrome.’
Anxiety can cause hyperventilation to occur in a variety of ways. For example, when anxiety kicks in it causes the body to go into ‘fight or flight’ mode, which can lead to rapid breathing. Another way is that, by overthinking about your breathing, the source says, “…you tend to breathe far more than you need to, leading to hyperventilation.”
Hyperventilation and asthma oftentimes occur alongside one another. In some cases, hyperventilation may happen because a person’s fear of having an asthma attack can result in anxiety and panic attacks. And this anxiousness can worsen the symptoms of asthma, which for some leads to hyperventilation.
- Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD)
Along with symptoms like chest pain, dizziness, and a racing heartbeat, hyperventilation can also accompany panic attacks. Hyperventilation can be particularly scary for those with COPD as they have a hard time breathing already, so it only “worsens any COPD symptoms a patient might be experiencing.”
- Altitude Sickness
At higher altitudes, oxygen is less accessible. So if we ascend to these locations too rapidly, without allowing our bodies time to acclimatize, we may experience something called altitude sickness.
In order to compensate for the decrease in available oxygen, we have to breathe much faster than normal in order to continue meeting our body’s needs. This condition is known as hypoxia, but can sometimes lead to hyperventilation. Unfortunately, the rapid breathing that accompanies hyperventilation makes oxygen even less accessible to the body, thus worsening the symptoms of altitude sickness.