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Jul.28.2022
 Panic Attack

Panic Attack

A panic attack is a sudden episode of severe anxiety, fear, or discomfort that causes physical and emotional symptoms. A panic attack may be in response to something frightening, or it may occur for no known reason.

Symptoms of a panic attack can be similar to symptoms of a heart attack or stroke. It is important to see your health care provider when you have a panic attack so that these conditions can be ruled out.

What are the causes?

A panic attack may be caused by:
  • An extreme, life-threatening situation, such as a war or natural disaster.
  • An anxiety disorder, such as post-traumatic stress disorder.
  • Depression.
  • Panic disorder.
  • Certain medical conditions, including heart problems, neurological conditions, and infections.

Other causes may include:
  • Certain over-the-counter and prescription medicines.
  • Supplements that increase anxiety.
  • Illegal drugs that increase heart rate and blood pressure, such as methamphetamine.

What increases the risk?

You are more likely to develop this condition if:
  • You have another mental health condition.
  • You use alcohol, illegal drugs, or other substances.
  • You are under extreme stress.
  • A life event is causing increased feelings of anxiety and depression.

What are the signs or symptoms?

A panic attack starts suddenly, usually lasts 5–10 minutes, and occurs with one or more of the following:
  • A pounding heart, or a feeling that your heart is beating irregularly or faster than normal (palpitations).
  • Sweating, trembling, or shaking.
  • Shortness of breath, feeling smothered, or feeling choked.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Nausea or a strange feeling in your stomach.
  • Dizziness, feeling light-headed, or feeling like you might faint.

Other symptoms may include:
  • Chills or hot flashes.
  • Numbness or tingling in your lips, hands, or feet.
  • Feeling confused, or feeling that you are not yourself.
  • Fear of losing control or of being emotionally unstable, or fear of dying.

How is this diagnosed?

Doctor speaking with a patient in the doctor's office.

A panic attack is diagnosed with an assessment by your health care provider. During the assessment, your health care provider will ask questions about:
  • Your history of anxiety, depression, and panic attacks.
  • Your medical history.
  • Whether you drink alcohol, use drugs, take supplements, or take medicines. Be honest about your substance use.

Your health care provider may also:
  • Order blood tests or other kinds of tests to rule out serious medical conditions.
  • Refer you to a mental health professional for further evaluation.

How is this treated?

A panic attack is a symptom of another condition. Treatment depends on the cause of the panic attack.
  • If the cause is a medical problem, your health care provider will treat that problem or refer you to a specialist.
  • If the cause is emotional, you may be given anti-anxiety medicines or referred to a counselor. Anti-anxiety medicines may reduce how often attacks happen, reduce how severe the attacks are, and lower anxiety.
  • If the cause is a medicine, your health care provider may tell you to stop the medicine, change your dose, or take a different medicine.
  • If the cause is an illegal drug, treatment may involve letting the drug wear off and taking medicine to help the drug leave your body or to stop its effects. Attacks caused by heavy drug use may continue even if you stop using the drug.

Most panic attacks go away with treatment of the underlying problem. If you have panic attacks often, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Follow these instructions at home:

Alcohol use

  • Do not drink alcohol if:
    • Your health care provider tells you not to drink.
    • You are pregnant, may be pregnant, or are planning to become pregnant.
  • If you drink alcohol:
    • Limit how much you have to:
      • 0–1 drink a day for women.
      • 0–2 drinks a day for men.
    • Know how much alcohol is in your drink. In the U.S., one drink equals one 12 oz bottle of beer (355 mL), one 5 oz glass of wine (148 mL), or one 1½ oz glass of hard liquor (44 mL).

General instructions

  • Take over-the-counter and prescription medicines only as told by your health care provider.
  • If you feel anxious, limit your caffeine intake.
  • Take good care of your physical and mental health by:
    • Eating a balanced diet that includes plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, whole grains, lean meats, and low-fat dairy.
    • Getting plenty of rest. Try to get 7–8 hours of uninterrupted sleep each night.
    • Exercising regularly. Try to get 30 minutes of physical activity at least 5 days a week.
  • Do not use any products that contain nicotine or tobacco. These products include cigarettes, chewing tobacco, and vaping devices, such as e-cigarettes. If you need help quitting, ask your health care provider.
  • Keep all follow-up visits. This is important. Panic attacks may have underlying physical or emotional problems that take time to accurately diagnose.

Where to find more information

  • Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA): samhsa.gov
  • National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH): www.nimh.nih.gov

Contact a health care provider if:

  • Your symptoms do not improve, or they get worse.
  • You are not able to take your medicine as prescribed because of side effects.

Get help right away if:

  • You have thoughts about hurting yourself or others.

Get help right away if you feel like you may hurt yourself or others, or have thoughts about taking your own life. Go to your nearest emergency room or:
  • Call 911.
  • Call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 or 988. This is open 24 hours a day.
  • Text the Crisis Text Line at 741741.

Summary

  • A panic attack is a sudden episode of severe anxiety, fear, or discomfort that causes physical and emotional symptoms.
  • Always see a health care provider to have the reasons for the panic attack correctly diagnosed.
  • If your panic attack was caused by a physical problem, follow your health care provider's suggestions for medicine, referral to a specialist, and lifestyle changes.
  • If your panic attack was caused by an emotional problem, follow through with counseling from a qualified mental health specialist.
  • If you feel like you may hurt yourself or others, call 911 and get help right away.

This information is not intended to replace advice given to you by your health care provider. Make sure you discuss any questions you have with your health care provider.

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