What Are Panic Attacks?

Medically Reviewed by Smitha Bhandari, MD on June 14, 2021

It's dramatic. Your heart begins to pound and you hyperventilate, sweat, and tremble. You fear you're having a heart attack or something equally serious. Then, 10 minutes or so later, it's gone.

What just happened?

You had a panic attack.

They're fairly common, usually beginning between ages 15 and 25. If they keep coming back, you have a persistent fear of more attacks, or you change your behavior significantly because of them, you have something called panic disorder. Nearly one in 20 adults have it, and women are twice as likely as men to get it.

Many people with panic disorder relate an attack to what they were doing when it happened. They may think the restaurant, elevator, or classroom caused the attack. Then they'll avoid those places. That may lead to something called agoraphobia -- the fear of leaving home or being in public places.


What brings on panic attacks and panic disorder isn't clear. Some researchers believe panic disorder may come from an oversensitivity to carbon dioxide, which makes your brain think you're suffocating. There's also an association between panic attacks and phobias, like school phobia or claustrophobia.

Some believe there are ties between panic attacks and:

Panic disorder may start after:

  • A serious illness or accident
  • The death of a close friend
  • Separation from family
  • The birth of a baby

Attacks may come after the use of mind-altering drugs. Most often, however, they come "out of the blue." One may even begin while you're sleeping.

Some medications can cause panic attacks, including some antidepressants.

If you're 40 or older and have panic disorder, you may have depression or another hidden medical condition. Talk to your doctor to find out what's going on.


Usually, a panic attack comes with a few of these:

  • A sense of approaching danger
  • Quick, intense, heartbeat
  • Nausea
  • Chills
  • Cramps in your belly
  • Headache
  • Numbness or tingling
  • Shortness of breath
  • Throat tightness
  • Trembling
  • Hot flashes
  • A feeling that you're apart from reality

If you feel like you're having a panic attack, see your doctor right away. While they are not dangerous, they can get worse without treatment.

Symptoms of a panic attack are similar to those for more serious conditions. If you're not sure if what you're having is a panic attack, call your doctor, just to be safe.

WebMD Medical Reference



American Psychiatric Association: Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders

Journal of Clinical Psychiatry, 2005. 

Shipkko, S. Surviving Panic Disorder: What You Need to Know, Authorhouse, 2003.

National Institute of Mental Health: "Panic Disorder Among Adults."


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