Respiratory alkalosis occurs when the levels of carbon dioxide and oxygen in the blood are not balanced.
Your body needs oxygen to function properly. When you inhale, you introduce oxygen into the lungs. When you exhale, you release carbon dioxide, which is a waste product. Normally, the respiratory system keeps these two gases in balance.
Respiratory alkalosis occurs when carbon dioxide levels drop too low. This causes the pH of the blood to rise and become too alkaline. When the blood becomes too acidic, respiratory acidosis occurs.
Hyperventilation is typically the underlying cause of respiratory alkalosis. Hyperventilation is also known as overbreathing. Someone who is hyperventilating breathes very deeply or rapidly.
Causes of Hyperventilation
Panic attacks and anxiety are the most common causes of hyperventilation. However, they’re not the only possible causes. Others include:
- heart attack
- drug use
- chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD)
- pulmonary embolism
If you’re experiencing hyperventilation (especially for the first time), don’t assume you know the cause. Make an appointment with your doctor.
Overbreathing is a sign that respiratory alkalosis is likely to develop. However, low carbon dioxide levels in the blood also have a number of physical effects, including:
- feeling light-headed
- numbness and/or muscle spasms in the hands and feet
- discomfort in the chest area
- dry mouth
- tingling in the arms
- heart palpitations
- feeling short of breath
Panic and Anxiety-Related Causes
Treating the condition is a matter of raising carbon dioxide levels in the blood. The following strategies and tips are useful for respiratory alkalosis caused by overbreathing due to panic and anxiety.
Breathe into a paper bag.
This is a very simple strategy. It can also be very effective. Fill the bag with carbon dioxide by exhaling into it. Then, breathe the exhaled air from the bag back into the lungs. Doing this several times can give the body the carbon dioxide it needs to bring levels back up to where they should be.
The symptoms of respiratory alkalosis can be frightening. This often causes faster and deeper breathing, making things worse. Having a calm loved one provide reassurance could help get your breathing under control.
Restrict oxygen intake into the lungs.
To do this, try breathing while pursing the lips or breathing through one nostril. For the second approach to be useful, the mouth and the other nostril need to be covered.
The above strategies are very simple ways to address respiratory alkalosis. People who often experience overbreathing due to anxiety can use these methods at home.
Anyone experiencing overbreathing and the symptoms of respiratory alkalosis for the first time should go to the hospital right away. The strategies described in the previous section should only be used if a doctor has confirmed the exact cause of overbreathing. Overbreathing symptoms are very similar to symptoms of other serious health conditions.
The recovery process depends on the cause of respiratory alkalosis. If you develop it due to overbreathing caused by conditions such as anxiety, you can usually expect to recover fully. Symptoms should disappear shortly after carbon dioxide levels in the blood are brought back to normal.
In other cases, it may be a true medical emergency. The outlook will then depend on the severity of the underlying cause.
Prevention is a matter of addressing the cause of the hyperventilation. The most common causes are psychological: stress, panic, and anxiety. You can adjust to and learn to control these causes.
Working with a therapist may help. So can breathing exercises, meditation, and regular exercise. Medication may be needed in some cases.
Good coping strategies for these types of issues are crucial. They can help lower the risk of hyperventilation and the resulting respiratory alkalosis. They can also help you function better overall in everyday life.