ZocdocAnswersWhat causes panic attacks?

Question

What causes panic attacks?

I'm a 45 year old man and when I was driving on the highway the other day I thought I was having a heart atttack. I went to the hospital and the doctor said it was actually a panic attack. I don?t understand this - how could I have a panic attack just driving down the road? How do I keep that from every happening again?

Answer

Panic attacks are a phenomenon that we as physicians do not entirely understand. They are often mistaken for heart attacks, pulmonary embolisms, asthma, and other breathing and heart disorders. They rarely can be diagnosed after only one episode, but usually they come back. Patients that have panic attacks generally report having sudden symptoms of shortness of breath, sometimes chest pains, feelings of impending doom, and lightheadedness. Patients deal with the initial episode by breathing into a paper bag to prevent hyperventilation. In severe cases, panic disorder can result in agoraphobia, or fear of leaving one's house. If you have another panic attack, you should consider getting treatment. There are several classes of medications that can be tried. First is the SSRI such as Prozac which is used to treat both depression and panic attacks. Other medicines such as Xanax can work to reduce symptoms of panic attacks, but don't prevent them. Only your doctor can determine which treatment is right for you. I suggest that you schedule an appointment with your primary care physician to make sure that he or she knows about the episode. From there, the two of you can determine what the next best step is for you. Good luck.

This answer is for general informational purposes only and is not a substitute for professional medical advice.

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