Expert advice about the causes of cardiac arrest and what to do in the event of an emergency.
By Anna Bonet
Cardiac arrests can happen to anyone at any time. But what exactly is a cardiac arrest, what causes them, and how can you help in the event of an emergency?
We speak to Ashleigh Li, Senior Cardiac Nurse at British Heart Foundation, about the most common causes, treatments, and what to do in an emergency:
What is a cardiac arrest?
A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops pumping blood around the body and you stop breathing normally. When your heart stops pumping blood, your brain is starved of oxygen. This causes you to fall unconscious and stop breathing, so a cardiac arrest is always considered to be a serious health emergency.
Cardiac arrest and heart attack: what’s the difference?
Many people use the terms cardiac arrest and heart attack interchangeably, but a heart attack is not the same as cardiac arrest. Many cardiac arrests in adults happen becausethe person is having a heart attack.
Many cardiac arrests in adults happen because the person is having a heart attack.
‘A heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked by a blood clot, and means the heart muscle is robbed of its vital blood supply,’ says Li. ‘If left untreated, the heart muscle will begin to die because it is not getting enough oxygen. This is a circulation problem, and the person will probably be conscious.’
‘A cardiac arrest is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood around their body,’ Li adds. ‘Unlike a heart attack, the person will be unconscious and not breathing or not breathing normally. A cardiac arrest is an electrical problem within the heart, and requires immediate CPR and defibrillation as soon as possible.’
⚠️ Both a heart attack and a cardiac arrest are emergency situations, so if you believe you or someone else might be experiencing either, call emergency services on 999 immediately.
What are the signs of a cardiac arrest?
Cardiac arrest often comes on very suddenly and the symptoms tend to be drastic. Here’s what to look out for:
❤️ Loss of consciousness
❤️ Sudden collapse
❤️ Lack of pulse
❤️ No breathing
The symptoms leading up to this include feeling fatigued, dizziness, vomiting, shortness of breath, and heart palpitations.
What causes a cardiac arrest?
Arrhythmias: This is an abnormality in your heart beat, due to a problem in the heart’s electrical system.
Coronary artery disease: When the heart’s blood supply is blocked by fatty substances in the coronary arteries.
Heart valve disease: If one of the valves in the heart is damaged, it can affect the blood flow and increase the risk of an arrhythmia.
❗️Risk factors for all of these health concerns include: smoking, obesity, drug taking, high blood pressure, and family history of heart disease.
What to do if someone is in cardiac arrest
If you witness a cardiac arrest, call 999 and start CPR immediately. Li recommends the following steps if you think someone might be in cardiac arrest:
Step 1: Shake the person to see if they respond and shout for help.
Step 2: Check for normal breathing.
Step 3: Call 999.
Step 4: Give 30 short, sharp chest compressions.
Step 5: Give two rescue breaths.
Step 6: Repeat compressions and rescue breaths until an ambulance arrives.
What about a defibrillator?
If you come across someone who is in cardiac arrest, call 999 and start CPR as specified above. It is also worth finding out if there is an automated external defibrillator (AED) in the vicinity. An AED is a device that gives a high energy electric shock to the heart through the chest wall to someone who is in cardiac arrest.
If you come across someone who is in cardiac arrest, call 999 and start CPR.
There are numerous defibrillators available in public places such as airports and leisure centres and they can be life saving, so in the event of an emergency it is worth asking if there is one nearby. Most defibrillators come with spoken instructions and on screen diagrams to help you.
Can you recover from cardiac arrest?
Cardiac arrest is reversible for most people if it’s treated within a few minutes, so it’s worth understanding what to do in the event of an emergency. ‘There are over 30,000 out-of-hospital cardiac arrests in the UK every year,’ says Li, ‘and sadly less than one in 10 people survive them.’