Incorrect advice and absolute myth: medical experts dismiss ‘life-saving cough CPR’ for heart attack when alone

Can coughing help you survive a heart attack when there’s no-one around to help? A well-crafted “emergency procedure” known as “cough CPR” continues to attract attention on social media.

CPR is cardiopulmonary resuscitation, a lifesaving procedure performed when the heart stops beating.

Versions of the claim have been widely shared – and flagged as false – by Facebook users in Nigeria.

‘Coughing squeezes the heart’?

One article posted on a Facebook page with over 10 million followers claims life-saving strategies for people having a heart attack while alone include coughing repeatedly and 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,” it says.

It adds that 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, according to the article, help get oxygen into the lungs and coughing squeezes the heart and keeps the blood circulating.

It says the squeezing pressure on the heart helps it regain normal rhythm, giving the victim time to get to a hospital.

The article concludes by asking the readers to share it as much as possible “as instructed by a cardiologist”.

And, indeed, the article has been shared more than 67,000 times, also attracting 8,500 reactions and 1,700 comments.

What is a heart attack?

According to American Heart Association, a heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely.

The association explains that this happens because the coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood can become narrowed from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances that together are called plaque.

“When plaque within a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the artery to the heart muscle,” it says.

When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients due to restricted or reduced blood flow, it gets damaged or dies. This is a heart attack.

Difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest

The American Heart Association explains that heart attack and cardiac arrest are two different terms, incorrectly used interchangeably.

“A heart attack is when blood flow to the heart is blocked, and sudden cardiac arrest is when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating unexpectedly. A heart attack is a ‘circulation’ problem and sudden cardiac arrest is an ‘electrical’ problem,” the article says.

Can coughing save your life during a heart attack?

Although it may be possible for a conscious, responsive person to cough forcefully and repetitively to maintain enough blood flow to the brain to remain conscious for a few seconds until an abnormal heart rhythm is treated, the American Heart Association says the procedure is not useful for unresponsive victims and should not be taught to ordinary people.

“The American Heart Association does not endorse ‘cough CPR’, a coughing procedure widely publicised on the internet,” says an article in their website.

 

The procedure has also been denounced by the UK’s Resuscitation Council. The organisation aims to promote high-quality and scientific resuscitation guidelines and help save lives with education, training, research and collaboration.

On its website, the council expresses concern about the “incorrect advice” articles on “cough CPR” given to people. It warns that the procedure could in fact cause more harm.

“Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is the correct treatment for sudden cardiac arrest, which is when the heart suddenly stops pumping. The majority of people having a heart attack will not suffer a cardiac arrest, and by attempting ‘cough CPR’ they could make their condition worse,” it says.

“The correct advice for anyone who thinks they may be having a heart attack is to call immediately for an emergency ambulance and, whilst waiting for the ambulance to arrive, follow advice from the ambulance call handler.”

Claim is an ‘absolute myth’

Africa Check asked Dr Christoph Preuss, a scientist at the Jackson Laboratory in the US and co-author of the paper “Variable outcomes of human heart attack recapitulated in genetically diverse mice” published in Nature magazine, about “cough CPR”.

He said it’s simply not true that the procedure would help a victim survive a heart attack.

“The claim that ‘cough CPR’ helps to survive a heart attack is an absolute myth. If you become unresponsive, it is rather unlikely that you can perform this procedure,” he told Africa Check.

“The best way to survive a heart attack is to know the symptoms and call the hospital or an emergency hotline immediately.”

Symptoms of a heart attack

The National Heart Foundation of Australia says the symptoms of an impending heart attack may include:

  1. Chest discomfort where people may feel pain, heaviness, tightness, pressure or a crushing sensation in the centre of their chest.
  2. Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  3. Shortness of breath where people may find it difficult to breathe or to take a deep breath due to a tight or constricted feeling in the chest.

Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness. The website says the best way to deal with a possible heart attack is to rest immediately, tell someone how you feel and seek immediate medical attention. – Dancan Bwire (22/05/19)

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