Acute Panic Attack

What is an acute panic attack?

A panic attack is a sudden and overwhelming episode of fear. Panic attacks are common, and around 10% of people will experience a panic attack during their lifetime. Panic attacks can be single episodes or can be reoccurring. A pattern of recurring, disabling panic attacks is called a panic disorder. During a panic attack, one may experience sweating, trembling, a pounding heart, shortness of breath and chest pain. Panic attacks usually go away after 5 to 10 minutes, although some symptoms may persist longer. Treatment of panic attacks can involve counseling and learning strategies to cope with a panic attack when it arises. Most people learn to manage their symptoms and eventually stop having panic attacks.


Around 10% of people will experience a panic attack in their lifetime. Panic attacks are more common in women than men. Panic attacks are more common in people who are experiencing a stressful event in their life, or who have an anxiety disorder. Certain drugs (such as recreational drugs), physical illnesses (such as thyroid dysfunction) and mental illnesses (such as depression) may raise the risk of panic attacks.


Panic attacks develop suddenly. During these attacks, people feel an overwhelming fear of losing control or of death. There may be a sensation that oneself and one's surroundings are somehow not real. Other symptoms are a racing heart, feeling unusually hot or cold, chest pain, sweating, shaking, and having a dry mouth. People having a panic attack may feel short of breath or dizzy due to hyperventilation (abnormally fast breathing)


The diagnosis of panic attacks depends on the symptoms and the individual's medical history. Since the symptoms for panic attacks can mimic some more serious medical emergencies, a physical examination and several investigations might be needed to rule out other causes. If panic attacks happen often and interfere with one's life, a psychiatric evaluation for anxiety disorders might be performed.


Deep, calm breathing is helpful to cope with the symptoms of an attack, and helps prevent hyperventilation. It is helpful to see a general practitioner, psychologist or psychiatrist for advice after having a panic attack, or if one develops a fear of having further panic attacks. Psychological therapy, counseling or support groups can provide valuable information about how to cope during a panic attack and techniques to avoid future panic attacks. People who have recurrent panic attacks, and who develop a panic disorder, might benefit from medications which treat anxiety.


Regular exercise, avoiding caffeine and eating regular meals may help in preventing some panic attacks. Some people find that practicing slow, regular breathing regularly helps them to be able to use this technique during a panic attack.