What Are the Warning Signs of Cardiac Arrest?

Reviewed on 4/29/2022
A man experiencing cardiac arrest and clutching his chest
When warning signs of cardiac arrest occur, they may include fainting (often the first sign), dizziness or lightheadedness, chest pain, palpitations, and shortness of breath.

A cardiac arrest is when the heart suddenly stops beating, resulting in blood no longer circulating throughout the body. 

A cardiac arrest is a serious medical emergency. A person suffering cardiac arrest will stop breathing and lose consciousness very quickly. If not treated within minutes, cardiac arrest can be fatal and most people who have a cardiac arrest will die from it. 

5 Main Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs

Cardiac arrest often does not have any warning signs. When warning signs of cardiac arrest occur, they may include:

A person who is in cardiac arrest will be:

  • Unconscious
  • Unresponsive
  • Not breathing

If you see someone you suspect may be in cardiac arrest, you can increase the person’s chances of survival by calling 911 immediately, doing cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), and using an automated external defibrillator (AED) if available. 

What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

The most common cause of a cardiac arrest is an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) called ventricular fibrillation. Causes of ventricular fibrillation include:

Risk factors for developing cardiac arrest include:

  • Older age
  • Being male
  • African American ethnicity, especially those who have underlying conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, heart failure, and chronic kidney disease
  • A personal or family history of cardiac arrest or inherited disorders that make you prone to arrhythmias
  • Drug or alcohol abuse

How Is Cardiac Arrest Diagnosed?

Cardiac arrest usually occurs suddenly and without warning and requires emergency treatment. It is rarely diagnosed with tests as it's happening, but is diagnosed after it occurs. 

People at high risk for cardiac arrest may be referred to a cardiologist, a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart diseases and conditions. 

Tests to help detect risk factors for cardiac arrest may include: 

What Is the Treatment for Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is a medical emergency which is usually fatal if not treated immediately with a combination of cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and defibrillation. 

If you see someone you suspect may be in cardiac arrest, you can increase the person’s chances of survival by calling 911 immediately.

  • CPR stands for CardioPulmonary Resuscitation, an emergency procedure that is a combination of chest compressions and artificial ventilation (breathing) used to save a person’s life when a person’s heart stops beating or breathing ceases. When performed right away, CPR can increase a person’s chances of survival after cardiac arrest.
  • A machine called a defibrillator delivers an electric shock through the chest wall to correct the arrhythmia.
    • Immediate treatment with an automated external defibrillator (AED) can be life-saving. An AED is a portable device, often available in public locations for use by bystanders, that sends an electric shock to the heart, stopping an irregular heart rhythm (such as ventricular fibrillation), and allowing a normal rhythm to resume. Even without formal training, most people can effectively follow instructions on an AED while waiting for EMS to arrive. 

If a cardiac arrest occurs in a hospital, a clinical team (sometimes called a “crash team”) will be called to carry out CPR and defibrillation.

A person may be given medication to help reduce the risk of another cardiac arrest.

Once the cause of the cardiac arrest is determined, there may be additional treatment. 

  • Coronary heart disease may require percutaneous coronary intervention, also known as coronary angioplasty, or coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) to help restore blood flow through narrowed or blocked coronary arteries
  • Implantation of an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD), which uses electric pulses or shocks to help control dangerous arrhythmias

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Reviewed on 4/29/2022
Image Source: iStock Images