Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2005;71(4):740

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is an anxiety reaction. When a panic attack happens, the person suddenly feels very afraid or very nervous. Panic attacks can last from a few minutes to several hours. Many things can cause panic attacks, such as being in a crowded place. Sometimes these feelings seem to happen for no reason.

How can I tell if I’m having a panic attack?

You may be having a panic attack if you have four or more of the following symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, or feeling like you can’t breathe

  • Racing heartbeat

  • Trembling or shaking

  • Sweating

  • Hot flushes or chills

  • Nausea

  • Feeling like you are choking

  • Feeling dizzy or unsteady

  • Feeling that your body is not real

  • Numbness or tingling in part of your body

  • Chest pain

  • Fear of dying, fear of “going crazy,” or fear of losing control

Some of the symptoms of a panic attack also can be signs of a serious illness. You should visit your doctor to find out what is causing your symptoms.

How can my doctor help?

Your doctor can teach you ways to cope with panic attacks. He or she might want you to try deep breathing and relaxation exercises. Your doctor might give you medicine to keep you from having panic attacks. He or she also might want you to talk with a therapist. Talking with a therapist can help you learn how to recognize the things that can start a panic attack and avoid them, if possible.

Will I have another panic attack?

Many people who have one panic attack have another one. The feelings that come with panic attacks are very scary. But worrying about having these feelings can be enough to bring on another panic attack. Remember that you will not die from a panic attack, and you are not going crazy.

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Copyright © 2005 by the American Academy of Family Physicians.

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