A panic attack is a brief period of extreme distress, anxiety, or fear that begins suddenly and is accompanied by physical and/or emotional symptoms. Panic disorder involves spontaneous panic attacks that occur repeatedly, worry about future attacks, and changes in behavior to avoid situations that are associated with an attack.
Panic attacks can cause such symptoms as chest pain, a sensation of choking, dizziness, nausea, and shortness of breath.
Doctors base the diagnosis on the person's description of attacks and fears of future attacks.
Treatment may include antidepressants, antianxiety drugs, exposure therapy, and cognitive-behavioral therapy.
Panic attacks may occur in any anxiety disorder, usually in response to a specific situation tied to the main characteristic of the disorder. For example, a person with a phobia of snakes may panic when encountering a snake. Such attacks are called expected attacks. However, such situational panic attacks differ from the spontaneous, unexpected ones that often occur in panic disorder. These attacks occur without any apparent cause.
Panic attacks are common, occurring in at least 11% of adults each year. Most people recover from panic attacks without treatment, but a few develop panic disorder.
Panic disorder is present in 2 to 3% of the population during any 12-month period. Women are about 2 times more likely than men to have panic disorder. Panic disorder usually begins in late adolescence or early adulthood (Panic Disorder in Children and Adolescents).