Frequently Asked Questions

One of the most frequently asked questions is, whether holding your breath to cure hyperventilation can be dangerous. In fact in some books about hyperventilation you can find this statement. That is why we presented this question to three independent Dutch medical panels. Below you can read the answers of those panels. The questions we asked were:

  1. Is it indeed dangerous to hold the breath (as long as possible)?
  2. Is this more dangerous for people that hyperventilate?
  3. Are there physical disorders where holding ones breath can be an extra risk?

The answers of

  1. Holding your breath is not dangerous by itself, but for controlling a hyperventilation attack is seems very sensible. You could try it yourself, just try to hold your breath as long as possible, as a reaction you will have to breathe deeply a number of times afterwards in response. After that the effect of holding your breathing will disappear again. A simple way to do it would be to the exhale in multiple stages, two second pauses between every time.
  2. No.
  3. Yes, basically for people that suffer from heart conditions (but only if there are acute moments).

The answers of

  1. Under certain circumstances it can be dangerous to hold the breath too long. The oxygen pressure in the blood will be reduced and the carbonic dioxide level in the blood will be increased. This allows the acid/base balance to change and this could cause some heart rhythm changes in certain predispositioned people. In general this would be elderly people that are already suffering from heart disorders, certainly not for the most common group of the people suffering from hyperventilation.
  2. The answer to question 1 is actually also an answer to question 2. In principle there is no difference in risk for hyperventilating versus non-hyperventilating people.
  3. See here also the answer to question 1.

The answers of

Your question is rather complex and will be answered by 2 specialists:

  1. Normally it is not dangerous to hold your breath as long as possible. There is a clear breathing trigger, which arises because the carbon dioxide in the blood increases when holding ones breath. Usually the increase in carbon dioxide levels triggers the inhaling reflex way before the decrease of the oxygen levels might trigger unconsciousness.
  2. Normally No. Only in a specific situation of diving under water in the swimming pool, people are known to have drowned because of hyperventilating deliberately prior to diving under water. The trigger of breathing can then be delayed so, that they become unconscious underwater and drown. Above water they still can get unconscious, but once they start to breathe again, they will be fine. But this is of course not a pretty thing to see.
  3. A number of points to keep in mind:
    1. If someone is hyperventilating, that can be primary. That means the illness is without obvious physical cause. It can be also secondary, which means the hyperventilating is due to some sort of illness. This could include pulmonary embolism, heart diseases, etc. It is therefore important to have these possible causes excluded first, before starting any form of therapy. This can of course only be done by a physician.
    2. The category people with severe COPD (“chronic bronchitis, emphysema and smoking”) will probably not be able to hold their breath properly. These people will have a low oxygen level in the blood, due to the reduced exchanging of gasses in the lungs. Also, there will be an increased carbon dioxide level, causing these people to breathe at a higher frequency than others. Also people that suffer from hypoxemia (= low oxygen levels in the blood) because of other reasons (for example (congenital) heart defects), can get into trouble if they hold their breath too long. Patients with severe pulmonary disease and/or heart disease should therefore be excluded from the therapy.

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