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Can breathing into a bag while hyperventilating kill you?

Updated on July 15, 2015

At one time or another, we may come across a person who is having an episode of hyperventilation. You could be at work or at the mall or in a park somewhere and the question might enter your mind….Should I help this person in distress? What can I do to help this person? When I was a kid growing up it was commonplace to hear people say that you should just breath into a paper bag and your rapid breathing with slow down and return to normal. It is true, this technique will probably work for most suffers but not many people know that it can also kill some people too.

First off, the proper name is hyperventilation syndrome and it is commonly associated with people who are emotionally upset or very excited. Panic attacks will also bring on this terrible experience. However, what a lot of people don’t know is that hyperventilation syndrome has similar signs and symptoms of a couple of very serious medical problems.

Hyperventilation creates the sensation of not being able to catch your breath. It is a spooky feeling that often translates into more hyperventilation, which then triggers the associated symptoms of hyperventilation syndrome. The following are the signs and symptoms:

* Fatigue
* Nervousness and anxiety
* Dizziness
* Shortness of breath
* Chest tightness
* Numbness and tingling around
the mouth, hands and feet
* Rapid breathing (tachypnea)
* Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
* Spasms of the fingers and feet

What is going on with true hyperventilation syndrome is the person is basically “blowing off” large amounts of carbon dioxide. Keep in mind, a certain amount of carbon dioxide is necessary for your body to properly function. The more carbon dioxide the person releases, the more severe the signs and symptoms get, which in turn increase the panic and the hyperventilating, thereby becoming a vicious circle which could lead to the body becoming more alkali (loss of too much acid). Respiratory alkalosis will eventually lead to seizures and possibly more harm, although this occurrence is pretty rare.

The primary way to help the person is to calm them down and slow the breathing. It is advisable to remove them from any sources that may have triggered the hyperventilation in the first place. You should instruct the person to consciously slow down their rate of breathing. A good way to accomplish this is to have them breath through their nose only. It is best if you stay there and talk them down.

Now, what you do not want to do is give them a bag to breath into and re-breath the carbon dioxide they are losing through hyperventilation. The reason for this is that two very serious medical conditions can sometimes present themselves similar to hyperventilation syndrome. They are pulmonary embolisms and myocardial infarctions (heart attacks). Re-breathing carbon dioxide could be fatal to persons experiencing these conditions. By only breathing in expelled carbon dioxide and little oxygen, this will only increase the likelihood of death for persons in dire need of oxygen (and an ambulance).

© 2011 Jamie Page

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