First aid for panic attacks and hyperventilation

Hyperventilation is a stateThe Hyperventilation Cycle of breathing faster or deeper than normal causing excessive expulsion of carbon dioxide within the body matched by an increasing oxygen level.

There can be many causes of hyperventilation and common triggers include emotions of stress, anxiety, depression, or anger.

Occasionally, hyperventilation from panic can be related to a specific phobia, such as a fear of heights, dying, or closed-in spaces (claustrophobia) and often, panic and hyperventilation become a vicious cycle.

The cause of hyperventilation cannot always be determined with sufficient accuracy (especially in the early stages) within the pre-hospital environment. Therefore yo should always presume hyperventilation is secondary to hypoxia or another underlying respiratory disorder until proven otherwise.

Hyperventilation may occur secondary to a life threatening condition such as asthma or anaphylaxis.

Recognition of hyperventilation

  • Previous history of panic attacks or hyperventilation
  • Immediate history of emotional event
  • Fast, shallow rate of breathing
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Pins and needles/tingling in the hands, face and around the lip
  • Hands in spasm (claws)

First aid for hyperventilation

  1. Remove the patient from any distressing triggers
  2. Attempt to control their breathing by ‘coaching’  – get them to copy your breathing pattern
  3. Assess for any underlying causes: is this an asthma or anaphylactic attack?
  4. Obtain medical help if symptoms do not resolve

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John Furst

JOHN FURST is an experienced emergency medical technician and qualified first aid and CPR instructor. John is passionate about first aid and believes everyone should have the skills and confidence to take action in an emergency situation.

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