Some people believe that
breathing faster and deeper at high altitudes can compensate for oxygen
lack. This is only partially true. Such abnormal breathing, known as
hyperventilation, also causes you to flush from your lungs and blood
much of the carbon dioxide your system needs to maintain the proper
degree of blood acidity. The chemical imbalance in the body then
produces dizziness, tingling of the fingers and toes, sensation of body
heat, rapid heart rate, blurring of vision, muscle spasm and, finally
unconsciousness. The symptoms resemble the effects of hypoxia and the
brain becomes equally impaired.
You are most likely to
hyperventilate while flying under stress or at high altitude. For
example, the stressful feeling of unexpectedly entering instrument
conditions, noting both gas gauges bouncing on empty, or developing a
rough-running engine over water or mountainous terrain may make you
unconsciously breathe more rapidly or deeply than necessary.
A pilot who suffers an
unexpected attack of hyperventilation, and has no knowledge of what it
is or what causes it, may become terrified - thinking that he is
experiencing a heart attack, carbon monoxide poisoning, or something
equally ominous. In the resulting panic and confusion, he may actually
lose control of the aircraft, exceed its structural limits, and crash.
A little knowledge is
all you need to avoid hyperventilation problems. Since the work itself
means excessive ventilation of the lung, the solution lies in restoring
respiration to normal. First, however, be sure that hyperventilation,
and not hypoxia, is at the root of your symptoms. If oxygen is in use,
check the equipment and the flow rate. Then, if everything appears
normal, make a strong conscious effort to slow down the rate and
decrease the depth of your breathing. Talking, singing, or counting
aloud often helps. Normally paced conversation tends to slow down a
rapid respiratory rate. If you have no one with you, talk to yourself.
Nobody will ever know.
Normal breathing is the
cure for hyperventilation. The body must be allowed to restore the
proper carbon dioxide level, after which recovery is rapid. Better yet,
take preventive measures. Know and believe that overbreathing can cause
you to become disabled by hyperventilation.