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Panic Attack in Children

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jan 5, 2023.

What is a panic attack?

A panic attack is a strong feeling of fear or discomfort. The attack starts suddenly, is worst 10 minutes after it starts, and stops within 20 minutes. An attack may be triggered by something your child does, such as public speaking. Exposure to something he or she is afraid of can also trigger an attack. A panic attack can also happen for no clear reason. Panic attacks that happen often may be a sign of a panic disorder that needs long-term treatment.

What are the signs and symptoms of a panic attack?

  • Chest pain or discomfort, or fast or irregular heartbeats
  • Sweating, trembling, lightheartedness, or fainting
  • Hyperventilation (breathing so quickly your child becomes dizzy, lightheaded, or faint)
  • Shortness of breath, trouble breathing, or a feeling of choking or smothering
  • Pale or cold skin, chills, or hot flashes
  • Nausea, vomiting, or abdominal pain
  • A feeling that your child is separate from his or her body
Heart Attack vs Panic Attack

How is a panic attack diagnosed and treated?

Your child's healthcare provider will ask what triggered the attack. Tell him or her if fear of another panic attack limits your child's daily activities. Also tell the provider about any medications your child currently takes. Tests may be done to check for medical conditions that may be causing symptoms. Treatment may include any of the following:

  • Medicines may be given to make your child feel more relaxed or to reduce anxiety that causes a panic attack. Some medicines are taken only when your child is having a panic attack. Other medicines can be taken to prevent panic attacks. Medicines are usually used along with therapy or other treatments.
  • Behavior therapy can help your child learn to control how his or her body responds to stressful situations. A therapist may also teach your child ways to relax muscles and slow breathing during a panic attack. Your child may also learn ways to know that the panic attack will not get worse.
  • Exposure therapy is used to help your child change his or her reaction to triggers. Your child is exposed to triggers in small amounts. The amount of exposure is slowly increased until it no longer triggers a panic attack.

What can I do to help my child manage or prevent a panic attack?

  • Help your child manage stress. Stress can trigger a panic attack. Help your child talk about the stress he or she feels. Offer support and encouragement. Your child may need help finding a solution to a problem. He or she may also just need to talk.
  • Encourage your child to be physically active. Physical activity, such as exercise, can reduce stress and help your child sleep better. Children and adolescents should get at least 60 minutes of physical activity every day. Your child's healthcare provider can help you create an exercise plan.
  • Set a sleep schedule. Too little sleep can increase anxiety. Have your child go to bed at the same time each night and wake up at the same time each morning. Keep your child's room quiet and free from distractions, such as a television or computer.
  • Offer your child a variety of healthy foods. Healthy foods include fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy products, lean meats, fish, and beans. Limit sugar. Sugar can increase your child's symptoms.
    Healthy Foods
  • Do not let your child have foods or drinks that contain caffeine. These include coffee, tea, soda, energy drinks, and chocolate. Caffeine can make anxiety worse or trigger a panic attack.
  • Talk to your adolescent about not smoking. Nicotine and other chemicals in cigarettes and cigars can increase anxiety. Ask your adolescent's healthcare provider for information if he or she currently smokes and needs help to quit. E-cigarettes or smokeless tobacco still contain nicotine. Talk to your adolescent's healthcare provider before he or she uses these products.

Treatment options

The following list of medications are in some way related to or used in the treatment of this condition.

Call your local emergency number (911 in the US) if:

Your child has any of the following signs of a heart attack:

  • Squeezing, pressure, or pain in his or her chest
  • and any of the following:
    • Discomfort or pain in his or her back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea or vomiting
    • Lightheadedness or a sudden cold sweat

When should I call my child's doctor or therapist?

  • Your child has new or worsening panic attacks after treatment.
  • You have questions or concerns about your child's condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your child's care. Learn about your child's health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your child's healthcare providers to decide what care you want for your child. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

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Always consult your healthcare provider to ensure the information displayed on this page applies to your personal circumstances.