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Panic Attacks

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Panic Attacks Overview

Panic attacks are frightening but fortunately physically harmless episodes. They can occur at random or after a person is exposed to various events that may "trigger" a panic attack. They peak in intensity very rapidly and go away with or without medical help.

  • People experiencing panic attacks may fear they are dying or that they are suffocating. They may have chest pain or believe that they are having other symptoms of a heart attack. They may voice fears that they are "going crazy" and seek to remove themselves from whatever situation they may be in.

  • Some people may experience other associated physical symptoms. For example, they may begin breathing very rapidly and complain that they have palpitations, in that their "hearts are jumping around in their chest." Then, within about an hour, the symptoms fade away.

  • About 5% of the population will experience panic attacks during their lifetimes. People who have repeated attacks require further evaluation from a mental-health professional. Panic attacks can indicate the presence of panic disorder, depression, or other forms of anxiety-based illnesses.

  • Panic attacks may be symptoms of an anxiety disorder and affect at least 20% of adult Americans, or about 60 million people. Other facts about panic include that about 3 million people in the United States will have full-blown panic disorder at some time in their lives, usually beginning between 15-19 years of age. Panic attacks occur suddenly and often unexpectedly, are unprovoked, and can be disabling.

  • Once someone has had a panic attack, he or she may develop irrational fears, called phobias, about the situations they are in during the attacks and begin to avoid them. That, in turn, may reach the point where the mere idea of doing things that preceded the first panic attack triggers terror or dread of future panic attacks, resulting in the individual with panic disorder being unable to drive or even step out of the house. If this occurs, the person is considered to have panic disorder with agoraphobia.

  • Panic disorder in adolescents tends to show similar symptoms as in adults. Teens tend to feel like they are not real, as if they are operating in a dreamlike state (derealization), or be frightened of going crazy or of dying.

  • The disorder in younger children is less likely to have the symptoms that involve ways of thinking (cognitive symptoms). For example, panic attacks in children may result in the child's grades declining, decreased school attendance, and avoiding that and other separations from their parents. Both children and teens with panic disorder are further at risk for developing substance abuse and depression as well as suicidal thoughts, plans, and/or actions.

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Panic Attacks

Hyperventilation Overview

Hyperventilation is breathing in excess of what the body needs. This is sometimes called overbreathing. Rapid or deep breathing is sometimes seen in very serious conditions such as infection, bleeding, or heart attack.

Hyperventilation syndrome is more specific and relates to an overbreathing pattern that happens under certain conditions. This overbreathing results in a group of symptoms.

Although hyperventilation syndrome may seem very similar to panic attacks, the two disorders are different.

  • People with panic disorder often have emotional complaints (for example, fear of death or closed-in spaces) that accompany attacks.
  • If a person has hyperventilation syndrome, however, he or she will have certain symptoms without these emotional complaints (although the person still may be anxious).

Hyperventilation Causes

The cause or causes of hyperventilation syndrome ar...

Read the Hyperventilation article »

Read What Your Physician is Reading on Medscape

Panic Disorder »

Panic disorder is characterized by the spontaneous and unexpected occurrence of panic attacks, the frequency of which can vary from several attacks a day to only a few attacks a year.

Read More on Medscape Reference »

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