Find Information About:

Drugs & Supplements

Get information and reviews on prescription drugs, over-the-counter medications, vitamins, and supplements. Search by name or medical condition.

Pill Identifier

Pill Identifier

Having trouble identifying your pills?

Enter the shape, color, or imprint of your prescription or OTC drug. Our pill identification tool will display pictures that you can compare to your pill.

Get Started

My Medicine

Save your medicine, check interactions, sign up for FDA alerts, create family profiles and more.

Get Started

WebMD Health Experts and Community

Talk to health experts and other people like you in WebMD's Communities. It's a safe forum where you can create or participate in support groups and discussions about health topics that interest you.

  • Second Opinion

    Second Opinion

    Read expert perspectives on popular health topics.

  • Community


    Connect with people like you, and get expert guidance on living a healthy life.

Got a health question? Get answers provided by leading organizations, doctors, and experts.

Get Answers

Sign up to receive WebMD's award-winning content delivered to your inbox.

Sign Up

Anxiety & Panic Disorders Health Center

Font Size

Understanding Panic Attack -- the Basics

What Are Panic Attacks?

Panic attacks are unmistakable. You're involved in some ordinary aspect of life when suddenly your heart begins to pound and you hyperventilate, sweat, and tremble. You fear you are having a heart attack, going crazy, or even dying. Then, 10 minutes or so later, it's gone. What just happened? You have had a panic attack.

Panic attacks are fairly common, usually beginning between ages 15 and 25. If you have recurrent panic attacks, a persistent fear of subsequent attacks occurring, or if you change your behavior significantly because of such attacks, you have panic disorder, which affects nearly 1 in 20 adults according to the National Institute of Mental Health. Between attacks, sufferers live in dread of the next one.

Recommended Related to Anxiety Panic

What Is Agoraphobia?

It’s not unusual to worry sometimes. But when your fears keep you from getting out into the world, and you avoid places because you think you’ll feel trapped and not be able to get help, you may have agoraphobia. With agoraphobia, you might worry when you are in: Public transportation (buses, trains, ships, or planes) Large, open spaces (parking lots, bridges) Closed-in spaces (stores, movie theaters) Crowds or standing in line Being outside your home alone You may be willing...

Read the What Is Agoraphobia? article > >

Many people with panic disorder relate an attack to what they were doing when it occurred. They may assume that the restaurant, elevator, or classroom caused the attack, and decide to avoid that situation. In these cases, panic disorder may lead to agoraphobia -- the fear of leaving home or being in public places.

What Causes Panic Attacks?

The underlying cause of panic attacks and panic disorder is not clear. There is evidence of both a genetic and a biochemical basis. Some researchers believe that panic disorder may result from an oversensitivity in the brain to carbon dioxide and the triggering of a suffocation “false alarm” in the brain, leading to hyperventilation and panic. There is also an association between panic attacks and phobias, such as school phobia or agoraphobia, as well as with depression, alcohol abuse or cigarette smoking, suicide risk, and seasonal affective disorder -- a type of depression that occurs during winter months.

Panic disorder may begin after a serious illness or accident, the death of a close friend, separation from the family, or the birth of a baby. Attacks may also accompany the use of mind-altering drugs. Most often, however, a panic attack comes "out of the blue." It may even begin during sleep.

Some medical problems and medications can cause panic attacks, including some antidepressants. Panic disorder that begins after age 40 suggests depression or another underlying medical disorder.

WebMD Medical Reference

Reviewed by Joseph Goldberg, MD on February 27, 2015

Today on WebMD

young leukemia patient
Unhappy couple
embarrassed woman
Phobias frightened eyes
stressed boy in classroom
Distressed teen girl in dramatic lighting
man hiding with phone
chain watch