Recognizing Symptoms and Providing Emergency Care for Sudden Cardiac Arrest

How to Prevent Sudden Cardiac Arrest

When someone goes into sudden cardiac arrest, brain damage begins within minutes, even in a healthy person. This is why it’s important to recognize warning signs and seek emergency care.

Most people who go into cardiac arrest outside a hospital don’t survive. Good outcomes rely on a chain of survival that includes calling 911, high-quality CPR and defibrillation, and hospital care.


Cardiac arrest happens when abnormal, rapid impulses override the normal electrical impulses that start your heart beating. This stops your heart from pumping oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body and makes you lose consciousness. Without immediate treatment, it’s fatal.

Unlike a heart attack, you usually won’t feel pain during cardiac arrest. But you may experience chest pain or discomfort, difficulty breathing, and fainting or dizziness.

Survival outside a hospital depends on nearby people recognizing the symptoms, calling 911 quickly, and providing prompt bystander emergency response, including performing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and using an automatic external defibrillator (AED). The earlier someone in cardiac arrest gets CPR, the more likely they’ll receive a shock to restore a normal rhythm. This improves the chances of brain-saving treatments like using drugs and oxygen to keep your heart and other organs working while you wait for medical professionals to arrive. It also improves the chances that you’ll avoid severe, long-lasting brain damage.


When someone collapses, many people think of a heart attack. A heart attack stops the flow of blood to the brain. Cardiac arrest, on the other hand, happens when the heart’s electrical signals change. Without the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the brain, the victim is unconscious and unresponsive.

Sudden cardiac arrest usually occurs because of an abnormal heart rhythm, called ventricular fibrillation. The rapid, erratic heart signals cause the lower heart chambers to quiver uselessly instead of pumping blood. Some people who have sudden cardiac arrest have heart disease or take certain medicines, but it can also happen in young people and healthy people who seem to be fit.

Health care providers rarely diagnose SCA while it’s happening, because the signs and symptoms are so quick and severe. But they can be treated quickly if bystanders call 911 and start chest compressions and using an automated external defibrillator (AED) right away. The sooner the person is revived, the less likely he or she will have permanent brain damage.


The first treatment is cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). This improves blood flow and oxygen to the brain. If it is done soon enough — within two minutes of cardiac arrest — it can prevent brain damage and help people survive.

Most people who have cardiac arrest outside of a hospital die from it. That’s why it’s important for everyone to know the symptoms, call 9-1-1 and look for an automated external defibrillator.

When someone has a cardiac arrest inside a hospital, the treatment is usually faster. The person’s care is overseen by a team called a “crash team.” They use a specialized cart of equipment and drugs to save lives, including an automatic defibrillator and medications. A person may also have blood tests, an EKG and an echocardiogram to check for problems with the heart’s electrical system or other causes of the cardiac arrest. They might also have a magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) scan to get detailed pictures of the heart.


Sudden cardiac arrest happens when rapid impulses interrupt the normal electrical system of the heart, preventing it from pumping oxygen-rich blood to the body. It can lead to complete unconsciousness and sudden death if not treated within minutes. More than 356,000 people have SCA outside of hospitals each year, and about nine in 10 die.

Cardiac arrest can affect anyone, including young people and those who appear healthy. It’s often associated with underlying heart problems, like coronary artery disease and cardiomyopathy (an enlarged heart), but it can also be caused by serious bodily trauma, infections or severe blows to the chest.

SCA is different from a heart attack, which occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Calling 911 and using an automated external defibrillator, found in many public places, within two minutes of collapse can increase a person’s chance of survival by up to 90 percent. A sudden cardiac arrest can occur when you’re at work or school, playing sports, exercising or even sleeping.

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