About 'Cough CPR'

Ask the Experts by Ronald C. Strickler, MD

Q: Recently I have heard of a technique that may help someone stop a heart attack if you are alone - called cough CPR. What exactly is this and is it real?

A: I saw this myself, through a chain email - that victims can help themselves by coughing repeatedly and vigorously. The writer goes on to explain that deep breaths before each cough get oxygen to the lungs and coughing movements squeeze the heart to keep the blood circulating.

This MISINFORMATION is proof of the old adage, "A little knowledge is a dangerous thing." Search Google using the words "cough CPR" and fortunately, the first hit is a credible source: The American Heart Association does not endorse cough CPR.

During a sudden abnormal heart rhythm (in a controlled setting such as a cardiac catheterization laboratory with the patient on an EKG monitor,) it may be possible for a conscious, responsive person (receiving direction from a health professional as their thinking fades) to cough forcefully and repeatedly to maintain enough blood flow to the brain to remain conscious for a few seconds until the arrhythmia is treated. This has been mislabeled cough CPR. 

If you are alone and experience heart attack symptoms, stop whatever you are doing, proceed to a safe place and call 911. If you are driving, pull to the side of the road and call for aid. Lay on your horn to attract attention to your medical emergency.

Most heart attacks start slowly with mild symptoms and people try to wait them out. The warning signs are chest discomfort (usually in the center, pressure, squeezing, fullness or dull pain,) shortness of breath (with or without chest pain,) cold sweat, nausea/vomiting, unusual fatigue or lightheadedness. Women are more likely to have shortness of breath without chest pain, pain in the jaw, arm, stomach, sweating, nausea/vomiting, fatigue and/or dizziness. 

Go by the doctor's rule: if your gut feeling is that the symptom may be a heart attack, get help first and feel silly later. 

Ronald C. Strickler, MD, MBA, Senior Staff, Division of Reproductive Medicine, Women's Health Services at Henry Ford Health System. Dr. Strickler is also Professor of Obstetrics and Gynecology and Wayne State University School of Medicine, and serves as Fleet Surgeon for the GP Sail Club. His professional publications include eighty peer-review journal articles and a dozen book chapters plus service as a reviewer and editorial board member for several international journals.

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