What to Do if You Go into Cardiac Arrest

Written by LVMC on

Getting prompt medical treatment is essential to surviving cardiac arrest. Knowing what to do during an episode of cardiac arrest can reduce the risk of complications, including permanent brain damage and death.


Getting prompt medical treatment is essential to surviving cardiac arrest. Knowing what to do during an episode of cardiac arrest can reduce the risk of complications, including permanent brain damage and death.

Cardiac arrest is a life-threatening condition that can lead to brain damage or death when not treated right away. It occurs when your heart and breathing stop, and you lose consciousness.

Knowing the signs and risk factors of cardiac arrest can help you stay safe. If you think you see someone else going into cardiac arrest, you can take the proper steps to connect them with medical treatment and potentially save their life.

Here’s more about cardiac arrest and its symptoms and what you should do if you think you or someone else is experiencing this serious health condition.

How Common Is Cardiac Arrest?

In 2015, nearly 357,000 people in the U.S. experienced cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting, reports the CDC. It adds that between 70% and 90% of people who go into cardiac arrest die before they reach a hospital. Another 209,000 people experience cardiac arrest every year while in the hospital.

According to a 2021 study published in Current Opinion in Critical Care, sudden cardiac arrest accounts for between 15% and 20% of all natural deaths among adults in the U.S. and Western Europe. It also accounts for up to 50% of all heart-related deaths.

Is Cardiac Arrest the Same As a Heart Attack?

Many people confuse cardiac arrest with a heart attack. However, these conditions are not the same.

Cardiac arrest occurs when there is a problem with the heart’s electrical system that controls heart rate. This can stop the heart from pumping, which then stops blood flow to the rest of the body.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow is blocked to a part of the heart. Many times, a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest.

What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is usually caused by another heart problem, such as a heart attack. However, it can happen to anyone, even people without another heart problem. It can occur when your heart rate is abnormal or out of rhythm. It may also occur when your heart rate is too slow or too fast.

Researchers say that the life-threatening abnormal heart rate that causes cardiac arrest is usually due to another heart condition. People often go into cardiac arrest for this reason and do not know they have a serious heart condition.

Heart conditions linked to cardiac arrest, aside from heart attack, include:

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD occurs when arteries get clogged with cholesterol or other substances. This reduces blood flow to the heart.
  • Cardiomyopathy. This condition is also known as an enlarged heart. It occurs when the walls of the heart thicken or stretch to cause an abnormal heart rate.
  • Valvular heart disease. This occurs when the heart valves leak or become narrow. This can cause the heart muscle to stretch or thicken and increases the risk of abnormal heart rate.
  • Congenital heart disease. This is a heart defect that is present at birth.

What Are Symptoms Of Cardiac Arrest?

Symptoms of cardiac arrest usually come on suddenly. According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), these sudden symptoms include:

  • Sudden collapse, or loss of consciousness.
  • No breathing, or difficulty breathing.
  • No pulse.
  • No response to shouting or shaking.

The NIH adds that sometimes, you can experience symptoms of cardiac arrest weeks, hours, or minutes before it happens. Warning signs of cardiac arrest include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Chest pain or discomfort.
  • Fatigue, or extreme weakness.
  • Back pain.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Fluttering or pounding heart.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Stomach pain.
  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • Repeated episodes of dizziness or fainting.

Am I At Risk For Cardiac Arrest?

Any person can go into cardiac arrest. However, certain factors may increase your risk. CAD is one of the top risk factors for cardiac arrest. If you have CAD or are at risk for CAD, your risk for cardiac arrest is high.

Risk factors for cardiac arrest include:

  • A personal or family history of CAD.
  • A personal or family history of cardiac arrest.
  • A personal or family history of heart disease and other heart-related conditions.
  • Heart attack.
  • Smoking.
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Obesity.
  • Diabetes.
  • Low physical activity level.
  • Age. The risk for cardiac arrest increases as you grow older.
  • Gender. Males are at higher risk.
  • Obstructive sleep apnea.
  • Chronic kidney disease.
  • Using illegal drugs.
  • Nutritional deficiencies.

Your doctor can review your medical history and confirm whether you may be at risk for cardiac arrest.

When To Call Emergency Medical Services

If you think you might be going into cardiac arrest, you need to call 911 or emergency medical services right away. Do not wait to see if your symptoms go away. Every minute counts, given how brain damage or death can occur within minutes after your heart stops.

The NIH says that people who get medical care for warning signs of cardiac arrest are five times more likely to survive.

Call 911 or emergency medical services when you experience the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain.
  • Fainting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Unexplained wheezing.
  • Rapid heart rate.
  • Irregular heart rate.
  • Heart palpitations.

What To Do When Someone Else Is In Cardiac Arrest

If you think someone else is going into cardiac arrest, act quickly. You can potentially save that person’s life before emergency medical services arrive.

Call 911

Call emergency medical services before you do anything else. You can work on saving the person’s life before the medical team arrives.


Start performing CPR immediately after you call 911. First, check to see if the person is breathing. If not, begin doing CPR.

Make sure the person is lying on their back on a firm, flat surface. Then, do 30 chest compressions. Position both your hands on the center of the chest. Position your shoulders directly over your hands and lock your elbows. Press down at least two inches on the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 compressions per minute. Make sure the chest returns to its normal position after each compression.

Next, breathe into the person’s airway two times. Before you do this, lift the person’s head and tilt the chin back slightly. This opens the airway. Breathe into the person’s airway for one second. The chest should rise. Allow the air to exit their body before giving a second breath.

Repeat sets of compressions followed by breaths until the emergency medical team arrives.

Use a Defibrillator

Portable defibrillators are located in many public spaces, including airports, amusement parks, and shopping malls. If you are in public and see someone going into cardiac arrest, try to locate a nearby defibrillator.

A portable defibrillator will provide you with easy-to-follow voice instructions. First, it will check the person’s heart rate. If a shock is needed, the device will instruct you on how to do it. After delivering the shock, start performing CPR. After you complete a set of compressions and breaths, recheck the person’s heart rate using the defibrillator. Give another shock if needed, and continue doing CPR until the emergency medical team arrives on the scene.

How To Prevent Cardiac Arrest

It is possible to prevent cardiac arrest, even if you meet the risk factors for this condition. The most effective way to avoid it is by practicing heart-healthy behaviors.

Things you can do to reduce your risk for cardiac arrest include:

  • Eat nutritious foods. Fruits, vegetables, fish, and nuts are some of many healthy, whole foods that are great for your heart. Avoid foods with high amounts of salt and sugar, as they can increase your blood pressure and cholesterol. These unhealthy foods can also increase your risk for heart disease.
  • Exercise regularly. Physical activity helps strengthen your heart and improves its function. The CDC recommends getting at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity every week. It says you should also do muscle-strengthening exercises at least twice a week.
  • Don’t smoke. Talk to your doctor about smoking cessation treatments if you smoke and need help quitting. Medications and nicotine replacement are effective smoking cessation treatments.
  • Drink less alcohol. Limit yourself to no more than one drink a day if you’re female and no more than two drinks a day if you’re male.
  • Manage stress. Stress is bad for your heart and increases your risk for many heart-related conditions. Spend time with your pets or loved ones, do yoga, or practice deep breathing. Your doctor can talk to you about other effective ways to reduce stress.
  • Take medications as directed. If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, take all your medications for these conditions as directed by your doctor. Do not allow these conditions to go unmanaged, as they could lead to more serious heart problems.
  • Learn about your family medical history. Knowing your family’s health history can empower you to take the right steps to avoid the same medical conditions. Your doctor can talk to you more about how to stay healthy based on your family’s medical history.

Cardiology Services At Lompoc Valley Medical Center

Lompoc Valley Medical Center is home to a large team of board-certified doctors who can diagnose and treat a wide range of heart-related problems. Contact us today at (805) 737-3382 to request an appointment and learn more about our many healthcare services.

Written by
Editorial Staff