Breathing into a paper bag for hyperventilation

Does it work or not?

Many people believe that breathing into a paper bag will help them if they are hyperventilating.  Usually, if a person has a panic attack, someone will pull out the trusty brown paper bag and ask the distressed person to breathe into it.

First, we must look at why people think this is a good idea.  Secondly, does it work?

Why breathe into a paper bag when hyperventilating?

When we hyperventilate, over breathe, or breathe too quickly, we breathe out too much carbon dioxide.  The idea behind re-breathing into a paper bag is to breathe in the carbon dioxide again.

We usually associate this with panic attacks, and if it is anxiety, over-breathing has a lot to do with the symptoms on the diagram; you can read more on symptoms here.

Please also see our guide to panic attacks

Does it work?

Many people now do not use this technique, which can be less than helpful to the person experiencing rapid, out-of-control breathing.

When I was a teenager, watching my friend had what we later found out to be a panic attack during a class in school.  The teacher nipped out and returned with the trusty brown paper bag, which was held over my friend’s face and mouth while she “rebreathed.”

It is important to note that many methods for panic attacks stop this rapid breathing, usually caused by receiving a stress response in situations where it is not necessary, that do not involve the paper bag.  More importantly, there are medical conditions that may be causing hyperventilation (such as asthma) that need medical treatment, not a brown paper bag.

My advice is, if someone’s breathing is out of control before you run for the paper bag, it is best to find out the cause of the hyperventilation first.

It may have an underlying medical cause that needs treatment.

If it is due to anxiety, there are many treatments available.

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