Cough CPR: It’s a Myth
I’ve had several students ask me about “Cough CPR” as a way to keep their heart beating during a heart attack, thus preventing themselves from descending into cardiac arrest. Recently, a student opened his wallet and handed me a piece of paper with this email printed on it:
HOW TO SURVIVE A HEART ATTACK WHEN ALONE
Since many people are alone when they suffer a heart attack, this article seemed in order. Without help the person whose heart stops beating properly and who begins to feel Faint, has only about 10 seconds left before losing consciousness. However, these victims can help themselves by coughing repeatedly and very vigorously. A deep breath should be taken before each cough, and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as when producing sputum from deep inside the chest. A breath and a cough must be repeated about every two seconds without let up until help arrives, or until the heart is felt to be beating normally again. Deep breaths get oxygen into the lungs and coughing movements squeeze the heart and keep the blood circulating.
The student had been carrying this email around him for several years and practicing these breathing and coughing techniques in case he ever had a heart attack. Unfortunately, coughing during a heart attack is not going to keep your heart beating. It’s a myth.
Here’s why Cough CPR doesn’t work. When a person experiences the symptoms of a heart attack (which are described later), the cause is an occlusion (a blockage) in an artery. This person needs either immediate surgery or clot busting drugs that are administered in the hospital.
The Cough CPR email my student received began circulating in 1999 and soon went viral. The author of the email appears to be generalizing a technique for a cardiac arrhythmia. There are techniques with a medical professional’s instruction in which a patient is told to cough during a sudden arrhythmia (irregular beating of the heart). This approach is only done during procedures in a catheterization laboratory.
Fortunately, there are ways to save your life during a heart attack. The most important step is recognizing the signs of a heart attack:
1) Uncomfortable chest pain that feels like pressure, fullness and squeezing that comes and goes, often accompanied by pain down one or both arms.
2) Discomfort in other areas of the upper body: jaw, neck and upper part of the back
3) Shortness of breathing
4) Sweating, lightheadedness, nausea
Women can experience these signs, but also signs that mimic a severe flu or even food poisoning. I’ve talked to several women who survived heart attacks who believed they had suddenly comes down with the worst flu of their lives. One tip to remember, you usually feel the flu coming on over many minutes, even hours. Heart attacks are sudden.
If you are experiencing the signs of a heart attack you should call 911 immediately, stay calm and rest until the ambulance arrives. Do not drive yourself to the hospital – car crashes caused by drivers having a heart attack are not uncommon… and frequently deadly.
Instead of coughing during a heart attack, immediately chewing 325 mg of Aspirin can help to keep blood flowing through an artery to the heart. Anti-inflammatory drugs like Ibuprofen are not a substitute for Aspirin. It has to be Aspirin. Do not take Aspirin if you are allergic to it, are taking a blood thinner or show any signs of a stroke.
People do survive heart attacks, but it starts with recognizing the signs and getting immediate help. Also, think Aspirin, not coughing.
Chris Schlesinger’s company In Home CPR teaches on-site safety classes at homes and businesses throughout the San Francisco Bay Area, serving Alameda, Contra Costa, Marin, Napa, Sonoma, San Mateo, Santa Clara and Solano counties. He offers certifications through the American Heart Association and American Red Cross in CPR, BLS, AED, standard first aid and pediatric first aid. Visit his websites at CPR Certification San Francisco or CPR Class San Mateo.