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How Can You Tell If Someone is Having Sudden Cardiac Arrest? How Is It Different from a Heart Attack?

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A sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) occurs when the heart abruptly stops beating. Signs of SCA include sudden collapse, loss of consciousness, absence of breathing or gasping for air.

If you try to waken the victim and they’re unresponsive or you’re unable to detect a pulse, you need to administer cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR and use an AED.

The Difference between an SCA and heart attack

A sudden cardiac arrest should not be confused with a heart attack.  A heart attack happens when there is a problem with the circulation while an SCA results from an electrical problem with the heart. 

While a heart attack can trigger an SCA, an SCA can’t cause a heart attack.

Recognizing the signs of a sudden cardiac arrest

During an SCA, the heart stops pumping oxygen-rich blood throughout the body, putting major organs at risk. This usually leads to a loss of consciousness, which may prove fatal or result in brain damage if the condition is not treated promptly. An SCA can occur suddenly or may be a result of another medical condition.

Medical conditions that can trigger an SCA include abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias), electrical or electrolyte imbalances, diseases that weaken the heart muscle, or congenital defects. Additionally, certain medications, extreme physical exertion, trauma, or exposure to extreme temperatures can increase the risk of cardiac arrest.

The clear indications of SCA include a sudden loss of consciousness, the lack of a pulse, and no breathing. 

Warning signs may include dizziness or chest pain. If the patient suddenly collapses, experiences shortness of breath, feels weak, or has heart palpitations, they may be going into cardiac arrest.

It’s important to note that sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is one of the leading causes of death among American adults, with approximately 365,000 incidents occurring each year. About  95% of them are fatal. That’s why taking a CPR class where you can learn the life-saving skills onsite is both worthwhile and beneficial.

What to do in the case of a sudden cardiac arrest

In the event that  someone is experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, knowing how to respond can make a big difference. Quick action significantly increases a person’s chances for surviving the event.. When the heart stops, again, any lack of oxygen for only a couple minutes can lead to brain damage or death.

The first step you need to take, when noticing signs of sudden cardiac arrest then, is to contact emergency services or 911. After contacting emergency services, check the patient and perform cardiac pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Ask someone, if possible, to find an AED.

If an automated defibrillator (AED) is available, you can coordinate its use with CPR. Shocks to the heart using this device can significantly help during a rescue attempt. AEDs can be found in public places like malls, community centers, schools, airports and gyms. 

An AED is designed to verbally instruct the user on the device’s operation. You can also use the machine to analyze the heartbeat and deliver shocks, as required.

Syncing CPR with the use of an AED

If you’re making a rescue attempt on an adult, you’ll need to compress the chest at least two inches deep, or one-third of the chest depth for a child who is not adult size. Compressions should be delivered at 100 to 120 compressions per minute. Keep your elbows locked and arms straight.

Place the heel of one hand on the victim’s breastbone slightly below the nipples. Place the heel of the other hand on the first hand, interlacing your fingers with the fingers of the other hand. If you’re giving a small child compressions, place one or two hands in the center of the chest, or place two fingers in the center of the chest for an infant.

While you’re giving compressions to an adult, push hard and quickly. This helps the blood flow to the heart and other vital organs. Allow your palms to lift slightly off the chest after each compression.

Give compressions and/or rescue breaths until emergency responders arrive. If you’re only applying compressions, keep up the activity until someone brings you an AED or the EMR team can take over.

When performing rescue breaths and compressions, you should give 30 compressions followed by two rescue breaths. Tilt the victim’s  head back, pinch their nose, and breathe into the victim’s mouth. You should be able to see the chest rise with each breath.

Once an AED arrives on the scene, follow the steps on the device. Alternate between using the AED and administering CPR. If you and another person are giving CPR, you may want to switch out the activity every two minutes to keep from getting fatigued. 

Keep the AED turned on as a safeguard, even if the victim regains consciousness. If they do respond, gently place them on their side.


Recognizing the warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest can be the first key step in saving someone’s life. Swift, knowledgeable action can significantly increase the chances of survival. Stay calm, act quickly, and be prepared to respond proficiently to this medical emergency. 

Where to sign up for onsite CPR training in the US  if you lIve in Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Florida, or Tennessee

Sign up with a training provider such as In-Pulse CPR today to receive onsite CPR/AED training.

Author: Donna Ryan is an author and editor. She regularly contributes content to the In-Pulse CPR blog and other health-related publications.

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