Symptoms & Emergency Treatment of Cardiac Arrest

Updated:Jul 29,2014

Ambulance With Flashing Lights Signs of cardiac arrest: It strikes suddenly and without warning.
  • Sudden loss of responsiveness
                   No response to tapping on shoulders
                   Does nothing when you ask if he is okay 
  • No normal breathing
                   The victim does not take a normal breath when you tilt the head up 
                   Check for at least five seconds

If these signs of cardiac arrest are present:

  • Call 9-1-1 for emergency medical services.
  • Get an automated external defibrillator (AED)
                  If one is available
  • Begin CPR immediately 
                 Continue until professional emergency medical services arrive
  • Use the AED as soon as it arrives.

If two people are available to help, one should begin CPR immediately while the other calls 9-1-1 and finds an AED.

Cardiac arrest is reversible in most victims if it's treated within a few minutes. This first became clear in the early 1960s with the development of coronary care units. Electrical devices that shocked the heart were discovered to turn an abnormally rapid rhythm into a normal one. Before then, heart attack victims had a 30 percent chance of dying if they got to the hospital alive; 50 percent of these deaths were due to cardiac arrest. In-hospital survival after cardiac arrest in heart attack patients improved dramatically when the DC defibrillator and bedside monitoring were developed. Later, it also became clear that cardiac arrest could be reversed outside a hospital by properly staffed emergency rescue teams trained to give CPR and defibrillate.

Immediate treatment is essential to survival of cardiac arrest. The problem isn't whether cardiac arrest can be reversed but reaching the victim in time to do so. The American Heart Association supports implementing a "chain of survival" to rescue people who suffer cardiac arrest. The chain consists of:

  • Early recognition of the emergency and activation of the emergency medical services (EMS).
  • Early defibrillation when indicated.
  • Early bystander CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation).
  • Early advanced life support followed by postresuscitation care delivered by healthcare providers

Care for Children
Not as much is known about care for children who experience cardiac arrest, but critical elements include managing temperature, glucose, blood pressure, ventilation and cardiac output. Survival is higher in hospitals with specialized pediatric staff.

Learn more:

This content was last reviewed on 07/12/2011.

 Cardiac Arrest

Hands-Only CPR

Hands-Only CPR (opens in new window) can be as effective as CPR with breaths. Watch the demo video and learn how to save a life in 60 seconds.