I am
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.  

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


You might also be interested in

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....

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)....

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...

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 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 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 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....

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 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....

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Heart Health Check Toolkit

Research Directory

Research Directory

MyMarathon

MyMarathon

MyMarathon

The fundraising race where you set the pace. Run, jog or walk MyMarathon at your own pace during October....

Tenecteplase versus alteplase for stroke thrombolysis evaluation trial

Tenecteplase versus alteplase for stroke thrombolysis evaluation trial

Professor Mark Parsons, Institution: University of Melbourne...

Lipid management clinical information and resources

Lipid management clinical information and resources

Lipid management resources for health professionals...

Ranch dressing

Ranch dressing

Ranch dressing

Serves Makes 1 cup | Serves 6 (2 tablespoons – 40ml)

Coronary Angiogram Test

Coronary Angiogram Test

This is a common test done to find out angina symptoms, or during or after a heart attack. ...

Dinner recipes

Dinner recipes

Dinner recipes

Search our heart healthy dinner recipes for tonights main meal...

Absolute CVD risk assessment resources

Absolute CVD risk assessment resources

Resources and clinical information for health professionals...

Healthy Food Access Tasmania

Healthy Food Access Tasmania

Healthy Food Access Tasmania

We've been working on several projects with local governments across Tasmania, big and small....

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Explore the Heart Foundation’s guide on what to expect in the first month after your heart attack. ...

Heart Foundation delivers $17.2 million for cutting-edge heart research in a challenging year

Heart Foundation delivers $17.2 million for cutting-edge heart research in a challenging year

Heart Foundation delivers $17.2 million for cutting-edge heart research in a challenging year

Media Release 20 October 2020...

Heart Foundation Research Award Recipients

Heart Foundation Research Award Recipients

Explore our research award recipients and projects...

Moroccan chickpea tagine

Moroccan chickpea tagine

25-40 minutes
Serves 4

Returning to work after a heart attack

Returning to work after a heart attack

Returning to work after a heart attack

Discover how to plan for your return to work....

For professionals: Guidelines for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

For professionals: Guidelines for acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

Australian  guidelines  for  prevention, diagnosis and  management of  acute  rheumatic  fever and  rheumatic  heart  disease ...

Hazelnut maple granola clusters

Hazelnut maple granola clusters

Hazelnut maple granola clusters

30 minutes
Serves Makes 635g. Serves 8 (80g serve – about ¾ cup)

Blueprint for an active Australia 

Blueprint for an active Australia 

Blueprint for an active Australia 

The Blueprint for an active Australia provides evidence-based actions to help address physical inactivity....

Support for young adults: Online events

Support for young adults: Online events

Support for young adults: Online events

Check back in for the latest updates on Supporting Young Heart events...

Meatloaf

Meatloaf

40-50 minutes
Serves 6

Research shows if you have gum disease, you’re twice as likely to have heart disease.

Research shows if you have gum disease, you’re twice as likely to have heart disease.

Research shows if you have gum disease, you’re twice as likely to have heart disease.

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation programs and resources to support your recovery....

Heart Health Network

Heart Health Network

Heart Health Network

Heart Health Network is the Heart Foundation’s newsletter for health professionals delivered to your inbox once a month....

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. ...

Improving heart health for all Australians

Improving heart health for all Australians

Improving heart health for all Australians

Guidelines for the assessment and management of Absolute Cardiovascular Disease Risk ...

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD)

Spontaneous Coronary Artery Dissection (SCAD)

Clinical information and links to SCAD resources....

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

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

Endorsement of externally developed clinical resources

Endorsement of externally developed clinical resources

Trek for Australian Hearts

Trek for Australian Hearts

Trek for Australian Hearts

Join the Heart Foundation in South Australia for the journey of a lifetime, trekking the ancient Flinders Ranges to help save Australian hearts....

Register your cardiac service with the Heart Foundation

Register your cardiac service with the Heart Foundation

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