Hyperventilation and Sighing

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: December 2023

Hyperventilation and sighing are linked to asthma. Their effect on asthma is still being studied.1,2

What is hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation is a type of dysfunctional or abnormal breathing pattern. A person who is hyperventilating takes rapid, deep breaths. It may look or feel like over-breathing. People with asthma may hyperventilate without a physical cause.3,4

When you hyperventilate, your body gets too much oxygen. The body responds by narrowing the blood vessels. This restricts blood flow and triggers a cascade of symptoms. These include:3

  • Breathlessness
  • Chest pain
  • Difficulty focusing
  • Dizziness
  • Numbness in arms or around the mouth
  • Pounding heartbeat

What causes hyperventilation?

More research is needed to fully understand what causes hyperventilation in people with asthma. But anxiety, stress, and fear play a role. These may trigger a fight-or-flight response that includes hyperventilating.3

What medical conditions are linked to hyperventilation?

Hyperventilation may be caused by, or linked to, certain medical conditions. These include:5

  • Asthma
  • Lung infections
  • Blood clots
  • Heart failure
  • Panic disorders
  • Thyroid problems

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How is hyperventilation evaluated with asthma?

Doctors do not have a standard way to diagnose hyperventilation. But your doctor may need to rule out other conditions.3,4

People who breathe normally have a blood oxygen level of about 95 percent. This rises to 100 percent during hyperventilation. A level below 95 percent may indicate a different condition.3

Your doctor may:3

  • Ask you about your symptoms
  • Do an exam
  • Check your blood oxygen levels
  • Order a chest X-ray or an electrocardiogram to evaluate lung and heart health

These processes will help your doctor know if you have lung or heart issues.3

How common is hyperventilation in asthma?

Hyperventilation is somewhat common in people with asthma. One study looked at the levels of certain gases in the blood of more than 1,000 people with asthma. It found that:4

  • 17 percent had acute (short-term) hyperventilation
  • 23 percent had chronic (ongoing) hyperventilation

People with chronic hyperventilation and asthma were more likely to be female, younger, and have good lung function.4

Does hyperventilation affect lung function or asthma symptoms?

Not really. A study of children with asthma found no effect of hyperventilation on their asthma.1

While all children in the study had mild or moderate asthma, some had hyperventilation and some did not. Researchers found no difference between those with and without hyperventilation. The researchers looked at:1

  • The number of asthma flare-ups in the past year
  • Asthma Control Test scores
  • Lung function

How is hyperventilation treated with asthma?

Breathing training is one way to treat both asthma and hyperventilation. The goal is to teach people techniques to better control their breathing.6,7

Breathing training is a way to help manage asthma and hyperventilation without medicine. Techniques include:8,9

A thorough review of many studies found that breathing training can have a positive effect on asthma and hyperventilation. It can help improve people’s quality of life, hyperventilation symptoms, and lung function.8

Is sighing linked to asthma?

Yes, but researchers know even less about sighing in asthma than hyperventilation. Sighing is connected with anxiety and emotional transitions. It also helps reset breathing patterns.10

Research shows that sighing can help reduce breathing tension and discomfort. It has also been shown that people with asthma may sigh more when their airways are constricted. And they sigh less after using a bronchodilator.10

More research is needed

Hyperventilation and sighing present intriguing links to asthma. Ongoing research is needed to understand how they are connected and help improve treatment approaches.10

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