I am
Show me:
Show me:
What is a cardiac arrest?
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

What is a cardiac arrest?

With immediate help a cardiac arrest can be survived. Learn how to save a life.

Key takeaways

  • A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. 
  • It is a medical emergency that can lead to death. 
  • With urgent medical care to restart the heart, survival is possible.  
  • Cardiac arrest treatment steps are: Call. Push. Shock. Call Triple Zero (000) immediately, start chest compressions and use a defibrillator (AED) if available.
3 min read
Your heart is one of the most important muscles as it pumps blood all around your body. This blood is full of oxygen, which is needed by every cell in your body. A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart stops beating. That’s why it’s a medical emergency that can lead to death. 

What is cardiac arrest?  

A cardiac arrest is when your heart stops beating. This means that your brain and vital organs are starved of oxygen; you become unconscious and stop breathing or do not breathe normally. A cardiac arrest is a medical emergency.  

Every minute counts when a person is in cardiac arrest. Without chest compressions and use of a defibrillator, a person in cardiac arrest will not survive.  

A cardiac arrest can be survived if you get appropriate help. If you see someone in this situation, call Triple Zero (000) immediately. The call operator can talk you through what to do. Any attempt at resuscitation is better than no attempt. 

What’s the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack?  

People often use these terms interchangeably, but they’re not the same. A cardiac arrest is different to a heart attack. The symptoms and management are also different. 

 

  • A person experiencing a heart attack will usually be alert, breathing, and complaining of chest pain or other symptoms. See heart attack warning signs for more information. 
  • If someone is having a cardiac arrest, they will not be conscious or breathing normally. They need immediate help by calling Triple Zero (000), starting chest compressions and using a defibrillator (AED).  
A heart attack can sometimes deteriorate to cause a cardiac arrest. Urgent response within 10 minutes of chest pain and/or other warning signs of heart attack starting may prevent a cardiac arrest in a person experiencing a heart attack.   

It is important to call Triple Zero (000) as soon as possible if you think you see someone in cardiac arrest.  

What causes a cardiac arrest?  

Your heart's electrical system controls the rate and rhythm of its pumping. A cardiac arrest is usually caused by an electrical malfunction in your heart’s electrical system that causes your heart to stop pumping. 

Certain heart conditions and events can lead to cardiac arrest if they cause a life-threatening arrhythmia (heart rhythm problem). Although heart disease is a common cause of many cardiac arrests, they may also be caused by trauma, respiratory (breathing) problems, drowning, electrocution or allergic reactions. Sometimes there’s no identifiable cause of a cardiac arrest. 

How common is a cardiac arrest? 

A cardiac arrest can happen to any of us. Most cardiac arrests that occur out of hospital occur in people’s homes, but a cardiac arrest can happen anywhere, at any time. Each year in Australia, about 25,000 people have a cardiac arrest out of hospital, but it’s estimated that as few as 5% of these people survive to leave hospital and go home.  

What are the signs and symptoms of a cardiac arrest? 

A cardiac arrest happens suddenly and rapidly. It often occurs with no warning. The person in cardiac arrest will:

 

  • Collapse and fall to the ground 
  • Have no pulse 
  • Not breathe or breathe abnormally (gasp for air) 
  • Lose consciousness (not rousable, not aware of their surroundings and not responsive to talk or touch). 

What do you do if someone has a cardiac arrest? 

A cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. If a person has a cardiac arrest, they will not be conscious or breathing normally. They need your immediate help by calling Triple Zero (000), starting chest compressions and using a defibrillator (AED).  

Every minute counts when a person is in cardiac arrest. You don’t have to be a trained paramedic to help save a life. Any bystander (even with no training) can improve the likelihood of a cardiac arrest patient surviving by taking three key steps.  
 

1. Call 

Call Triple Zero (000). Request an ambulance.  
 

2. Push 

Compressions-Only CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation).
Push hard and fast in the centre of the chest. 
 

3. Shock 

Use an AED. Provide rapid defibrillation. Anyone can use a defibrillator, as the device gives voice instructions to tell you what to do. 
The rescuer should continue CPR until the ambulance arrives. Remember the Triple Zero (000) operator will guide you through what to do. 

What is CPR (Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation)? 

Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) is a combination of mouth-to-mouth rescue breathing and chest compressions. CPR helps to keep blood and oxygen circulating to the brain of a person whose heart has stopped beating, until the heart can be restarted. CPR alone does not restore a normal heart rhythm. 

Compressions-Only CPR (COCPR) is CPR without rescue breaths (also known as ‘hands only CPR’). Both types of CPR double the patient’s survival rates.   

What is a defibrillator (AED or Automated External Defibrillator)? 

An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a portable electronic device that diagnoses life-threatening abnormal heart rhythms that can cause a cardiac arrest.  

An AED might be able to treat these abnormal heart rhythms by giving an electric shock to try to ‘restart’ the heart to its normal rhythm. This is known as defibrillation. 

An automated external defibrillator (AED) will only give a shock if it is necessary. You cannot do any harm by using an automated external defibrillator (AED) on someone who is unconscious.  

What about cough CPR? 

The Heart Foundation does not endorse ‘cough CPR’. This term is discussed on the internet and through social media as treatment for a heart attack or cardiac arrest. It involves coughing repeatedly to maintain blood flow to the brain to maintain consciousness. This is the incorrect treatment for a heart attack or cardiac arrest and can delay treatment for saving someone’s life. 

There is no evidence of any benefit of ‘cough CPR’ for heart attack or cardiac arrest. If you are alone and you experience the signs of a heart attack, call Triple Zero (000) immediately.   

Life after cardiac arrest 

After a cardiac arrest, your doctor will try to discover its cause. Your doctor will also discuss treatment options with you to reduce your risk of having another cardiac arrest. 
 
Life after a cardiac arrest will depend on:
  • If the survivor had brain damage and how much 
  • Time between collapse and the start of CPR/defibrillation 
  • Quality of CPR/defibrillation 
  • When brain activity restarted after the cardiac arrest
There are people who have survived a cardiac arrest and gone on to live a healthy, fulfilling life because of the immediate action taken by a bystander calling Triple Zero (000), starting chest compressions and using a defibrillator (AED). 

Watch David’s cardiac arrest survivor story


WHAT NEXT?

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Emma shares her story and opens up about her emotional struggles....

Action Plans

Action Plans

Action Plans

Recovery is a long journey, so having a plan makes a huge difference. Using an action plan gives you a step-by-step guide to improving your lifestyle....

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Visit the St Vincents Hospital NSW and Heart Foundation Aboriginal heart health website for more information...

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab is proven to keep you out of hospital and reduce your risk of death from heart conditions....

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

After having five open heart surgeries between the ages of 13 and 41, Peter knows a thing or two about recovery....

What is angina?

What is angina?

What is angina?

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that’s a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary heart disease (CHD)....

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Understand blood pressure and how it can impact your heart health....

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy, Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack. However, after experiencing a ‘widow maker’, she counts herself lucky....

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia where your heart beats irregularly and fast....

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Keeping your blood cholesterol at a healthy level can help you reduce your risk of heart disease and other serious conditions. ...

What is coronary heart disease?

What is coronary heart disease?

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease occurs when a coronary artery clogs and narrows because of a buildup of plaque....

Heart health information in your language

Heart health information in your language

A selection of heart health information brochures in a range languages...

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

Arrhythmia is a fault in the heart’s electrical system, which affects your heart’s pumping rhythm....

Medical tests for heart disease

Medical tests for heart disease

Medical tests for heart disease

Learn about the common tests your doctor may want you to have to diagnose your heart condition....

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease....

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Like men, women can be diagnosed with a range of heart conditions....

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Pregnancy is often referred to as the “ultimate stress test” for the body....

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition where your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should be....

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease means that your heart valve or valves don't open or close properly....

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is the broad term for conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart muscle. ...

Cook with Heart

Cook with Heart

Cook with Heart

Join the Cook with Heart Challenge as seen on Channel 7...

Understanding your heart age

Understanding your heart age

Understanding your heart age

Try our Heart Age Calculator to understand what contributes to your risk of heart disease...

Stay informed about COVID-19

Stay informed about COVID-19

Stay informed about COVID-19

If you have heart disease, you are more vulnerable to severe complications....

Lamb recipes

Lamb recipes

Lamb recipes

Find heart healthy lamb recipes....

Women and heart disease

Women and heart disease

Women and heart disease

Every day, 22 women lose their lives to this condition....

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Search our lunch recipe ideas...

Chicken recipes

Chicken recipes

Chicken recipes

Find heart healthy chicken recipes....

Time to book a Heart Health Check?

Time to book a Heart Health Check?

Time to book a Heart Health Check?

If you're over 45, or over 30 if you're of Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander descent, you should book your Heart Health Check today...

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Understand blood pressure and how it can impact your heart health....

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

I’d always thought of myself as fairly fit; I swam a lot, and did ‘soft running’, a combination of running and walking. ...

Jump Rope for Heart

Jump Rope for Heart

Jump Rope for Heart

Jump Rope for Heart teaches school children how to keep fit and healthy through skipping!...

Women's heart stories

Women's heart stories

Women's heart stories

Women's stories from around Australia...

Wholegrains and heart health

Wholegrains and heart health

Wholegrains and heart health

All you need to know about wholegrains to put you on the right track...

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Visit the St Vincents Hospital NSW and Heart Foundation Aboriginal heart health website for more information...

Sit less, move more

Sit less, move more

Sit less, move more

You may be surprised to know that on average, adults sit for nine hours a day....

Staying active for better heart health

Staying active for better heart health

Staying active for better heart health

Moving more every day is one of the best habits you can have....

Active Living NSW

Active Living NSW

Active Living NSW

Supporting physical activity and healthy built environments in NSW...

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

Find a cardiac rehabilitation service near you

This cardiac services directory presents information on cardiac rehab programs offered across Australia....

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

There is no single cause for any one heart condition, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing one. ...

Beef recipes

Beef recipes

Beef recipes

Find heart healthy beef recipes....

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is the broad term for conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart muscle. ...

Exercises to do at home

Exercises to do at home

Exercises to do at home

All you need to know about keeping active during COVID-19....

What is angina?

What is angina?

What is angina?

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that’s a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary heart disease (CHD)....

What waist measurements mean for your heart

What waist measurements mean for your heart

What waist measurements mean for your heart

How your waist measurement contributes to your heart health...

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

How to boost your fruit and vegetable intake to help protect your heart. ...

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Find heart healthy Italian recipes....

How to volunteer with us

How to volunteer with us

How to volunteer with us

Join our volunteers and make a difference to the heart health of Australians....

Snack recipes

Snack recipes

Snack recipes

Search for healthy snack ideas...

Dairy and your heart health

Dairy and your heart health

Dairy and your heart health

Not all dairy products are equal. Discover different types of dairy foods and their impact on heart health....

Keeping your heart healthy

Keeping your heart healthy

Keeping your heart healthy

Keeping your heart healthy is something you can work on every day. ...