Panic attacks and panic disorder

A panic attack is a sudden episode of intense fear that triggers severe physical reactions when there is no real danger or apparent cause. Panic attacks can be very frightening. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're losing control, having a heart attack or even dying.

Many people have just one or two panic attacks in their lifetimes, and the problem goes away, perhaps when a stressful situation ends. But if you've had recurrent, unexpected panic attacks and spent long periods in constant fear of another attack, you may have a condition called panic disorder.

Panic attacks were once dismissed as nerves or stress, but they're now recognized as a real medical condition. Although panic attacks can significantly affect your quality of life, treatment can be very effective.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Complications Prevention

Panic attacks typically begin suddenly, without warning. They can strike at almost any time — when you're driving the car, at the mall, sound asleep or in the middle of a business meeting. Panic attacks have many variations, but symptoms usually peak within 10 minutes. You may feel fatigued and worn out after a panic attack subsides.

Panic attacks typically include a few or many of these symptoms:

  • Sense of impending doom or danger
  • Fear of loss of control or death
  • Rapid heart rate
  • Sweating
  • Trembling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Hyperventilation
  • Chills
  • Hot flashes
  • Nausea
  • Abdominal cramping
  • Chest pain
  • Headache
  • Dizziness
  • Faintness
  • Tightness in your throat
  • Trouble swallowing

One of the worst things about panic attacks is the intense fear that you'll have another one. You may fear having a panic attack so much that you avoid situations where they may occur. You may even feel unable to leave your home (agoraphobia) because no place feels safe.

When to see a doctor

If you have any panic attack symptoms, seek medical help as soon as possible. Panic attacks are hard to manage on your own, and they may get worse without treatment. And because panic attack symptoms can also resemble other serious health problems, such as a heart attack, it's important to get evaluated by your health care provider if you aren't sure what's causing your symptoms.

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