General Question

elenuial's avatar

What does breathing into a paper bag do?

Asked by elenuial (1393 points ) March 17th, 2010

When you’re feeling nauseous or panicky or the like, people might hand you a paper bag and instruct you to breathe into it, such that the bag inflates and deflates. Does it actually help you feel better? If so, why? What in all the world is that supposed to do?

Seems to me like it’ll just make you pass out.

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22 Answers

liminal's avatar

…don’t forget the cool sound it makes. Doesn’t it have something to do with taking in carbon dioxide? (okay, I realize just how unhelpful I’ve been.)

Lothloriengaladriel's avatar

maybe it just allows you to focus for a minute, pay attention to your breathing and catch your breath, maybe, I don’t really know.

Drawkward's avatar

More than anything else, I’d also say that it makes you more aware of how much you are breathing.

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Hyperventilating reduces the amount of carbon dioxide in your system. Then your system has trouble maintaining the respiratory response properly. Breathing in the bag restores your CO2 levels so the system can get back to normal.

judochop's avatar

It’ll make you see colors.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

Gives the paper bag your bad breath.

But @Adirondackwannabe had the reason why people might do this: it helps to recover from a fainting condition from being hyperventilated.

cockswain's avatar

I got my EMT cert a couple years ago, and the instructors stressed that this is useless in treating people suffering from panic attacks, nausea, asthmatic attacks, or other breathing problems. It is apparently a bad idea. Proper treatment is administering oxygen, or just letting them be in the absence of having the means to do so. Must just be an old wive’s tale about the bag. If someone challenges me about the respiratory response argument, I’ll read my book from the class later and post what it says.

elenuial's avatar

@cockswain Your answer does contradict @Adirondackwannabe.‘s If either one of you have an authoritative source, that’s good enough for me. So, if you have the luxury, the book text would be nice. :)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

@cockswain We probably should get the right answer out there. This seems to be getting quite a few hits. My answer was just to take care of the hyperventilation. I don’t think it has any use in a medical emergency, but the Dr is posting now.

Dr_Dredd's avatar

@cockswain is correct. Breathing into a paper bag is not advised anymore. It’s not that breathing into the bag is harmful, but it’s that sometimes hyperventilation can mask illnesses that lead to low oxygen levels (hypoxia). If you have hypoxia you need oxygen, not a paper bag.

This was a good explanation in the NY Times.

And now I’d better get back to work. :)

Adirondackwannabe's avatar

Is it ok in non emergency situations? I stand corrected. I learned something today.

liminal's avatar

@Dr_Dredd Now that was helpful.

Cruiser's avatar

Breathing into a bag is done strictly to ensure the bag is where it needs to be when that moment arises and helps avoid that unfun cleanup of the backseat of the car.

njnyjobs's avatar

The best treatment of hyperventilation syndrome is to stay calm and practice breathing slowly and not too deeply. Calmness and breathing exercises have just as much success as paper bag breathing, and no one is going to die from staying calm.

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@njnyjobs it’s true that “no one is going to die from staying calm”… but that can seriously impact a politician’s chances of re-election. I think what is now called for is a full Congressional investigation into the practice of breathing into paper bags when hyperventilated. Is this a ruse perpetrated by the kraft bag manufacturers? Should there be warning labels printed on paper bags?

Etc. I could get militant about this. I may want to run for office myself someday (if I lose the good job that I have).

njnyjobs's avatar

@CyanoticWasp hey, you got a bag handy?

CyanoticWasp's avatar

@njnyjobs paper or plastic?

njnyjobs's avatar

@CyanoticWasp either one, but make sure you recycle in the line’s of being green

Rarebear's avatar

It gives you something to do while you calm down.

Symbeline's avatar

I’ve never actually heard that to be legitimate outside of my morning cartoons when I was little.

But I do enjoy filling empty bread bags with air, then running around and bopping people over the head with the bag.

Helps with stress anyway…

Dr_Lawrence's avatar

It works great for hiccoughs (hiccups)!

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