Warning Signs for Cardiac Arrest That Most People Ignore

Do you know the warning signs of sudden cardiac arrest? Recognizing the symptoms, and knowing what to do about them, could save your life…or the life of someone close to you.

In the United States, about 350,000 people die every year from sudden cardiac arrest. Sudden cardiac arrest is when your heart malfunctions and stops beating. Although it happens suddenly, you might have symptoms for up to a month before it happens. Unfortunately, most people don’t take those symptoms seriously enough, according to a new study published in the Annals of Inernal Medicine.

The researchers studied cardiac patients and interviewed first responders and family members. They found that 51 percent had actually experienced warning symptoms, mainly chest pain. Of the 839 patients studied, some of the most common symptoms included:

  • intermittent chest pain (angina) and pressure
  • shortness of breath
  • palpitations
  • ongoing influenza-like symptoms such as nausea and abdominal and back pain

Ninety-three percent of those who had symptoms at some point experienced them again in the 24 hours before the cardiac arrest. But here’s the thing: only 19 percent of them sought emergency care for those symptoms. In that group, the survival rate was 32 percent. The survival rate for those who didn’t seek treatment for symptoms was only six percent.

Heart attack or cardiac arrest: What’s the difference?

As the American Heart Association explains it, a heart attack is a circulation problem, while sudden cardiac arrest is an electrical problem.

A heart attack is when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Most of the time, your heart doesn’t stop beating during a heart attack. Heart attack can increase your chances of cardiac arrest.

Cardiac arrest is when there’s a malfunction of the heart, causing it to beat irregularly (arrhythmia), then stop beating altogether. With no blood flow, the brain, lungs, and other organs are quickly starved for oxygen. Consciousness is lost within seconds and without immediate treatment, death can occur within minutes.

Heart attack or cardiac arrest, it’s a life-threatening emergency. Taking action for those early warning signs could save your life.

Symptoms You Should NOT Ignore

Cardiologist Jason Guichard tells Care2 that classic symptoms of heart attack include:

  • chest pain or intense pressure with or without pain radiating to your left arm or left jaw
  • shortness of breath or feeling shortwinded either at rest or with minimal exertion
  • unusual and excessive sweating
  • nausea, vomiting, diarrhea
  • a sense of impending doom or feeling as if you are going to die

Symptoms prior to sudden cardiac arrest may include:

  • chest pain
  • difficulty breathing
  • passing out
  • palpitations, fluttering, thumping feeling in your chest
  • flu-like symptoms

“The symptoms are different in men and women, which is a widely known phenomenon. Men usually have more chest pain and women usually have more shortness of breath,” said Guichard. “The exact reasons for this is currently unknown, and why heart attacks are more often missed in women.”

Michelle Katz, LPN, MSN, author of the book Healthcare for Less, adds that women also tend to feel back pain, “which is why it is more fatal for women to have a heart attack…because they pass it off as something else.”

Watch the video: Just a Little Heart Attack

Dr. Guichard said symptoms of heart trouble are particularly worrisome in people who smoke or have diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, or pre-existing heart disease.

What To Do

If you have symptoms of heart trouble, or suspect someone else does, call 9-1-1 immediately. Every second counts!

Katz says any symptom of a heart problem must be taken seriously. If the person is conscious, ask if they’re allergic to aspirin. If not, “have the person chew or have someone crush one adult (325 mg) or four low-dose (81 mg) baby aspirin. They may choke/aspirate if you try to make them swallow a pill. If the person has been prescribed nitroglycerin make them take it, but DO NOT give them someone else’s prescription!”

While waiting for the ambulance, check to see if there’s an automated external defibrillator (AED) available. If so, open it up and be prepared to use it if the person loses consciousness. The AED provides step-by-step instructions. If there’s no AED and the person is unresponsive, perform CPR.

What NOT To Do

You want to get emergency medical care, but you definitely don’t want to get behind the wheel yourself.

Christopher Hanifin is a physician assistant with a clinical background in emergency medical services, emergency medicine, and open heart surgery. He tells Care2, “The worst thing that someone experiencing these symptoms can do is attempt to drive to the hospital. Ambulance personnel can deliver essentially all of the treatments available in an emergency department and can get you to definitive care.”

Katz added that another thing you don’t want to do — is nothing.

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Photo: miriam-doerr/iStock/Thinkstock


Sarah Hill
Sarah Hill2 years ago


Jerome S
Jerome S2 years ago


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for sharing.

Julie D
Julie D2 years ago

Valuable information for everyone, both for themselves and for others who may be having a cardiac event in their presence.

Tatjana Jancic
Tatjana Jancic2 years ago

My heart stopped when I was 19 and the reason was the nerve vagus, that's what I was told. I year later I was pumping iron and feeling great. The heart is healthy, intact (last check up 3 weeks ago), however blood pressure doesn't let down in these cold days. And if you have been having prolonged cold (mixed with laryngitis or sinus infections) it's really hard to say: Oh, that's it. The best thing to do is go to the doctor's every time you experience certain symptoms even if that makes you feel like a hypochondriac. It really is better to be safe than sorry.

Siyus C
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

Siyus C
Siyus Copetallus2 years ago

Thank you for sharing.

W. C
W. C2 years ago


William C
William C2 years ago

Thank you.

Trish K
Trish K2 years ago

Ladies - go to the hospital with any of these symptoms. Don't talk yourself out of it. Women are less likely to survive heart attacks, cardiac arrest and strokes.