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Urban legend

Last week I sent you an e-Alert about automated external defibrillators and how their use can save the lives of people who experience sudden cardiac arrest (“In The Clear” 2/19/03). In response, I received an e-mail from an HSI member named Austin who included some information about how to survive a heart attack when you’re alone. In fact, you may have received a similar e-mail, which has been widely circulated for several years. The advice (attributed to the Rochester General Hospital, and reprinted by Mended Hearts, a support group for heart attack victims) goes like this:

“The person whose heart is beating improperly and who begins to feel faint, has only about 10 seconds left before losing consciousness. However, these victims can help themselves by coughing repeatedly and very vigorously. A breath and a cough must be repeated about every two seconds without let-up. Deep breaths get oxygen into the lungs and coughing movements squeeze the heart and keep the blood circulating. The squeezing pressure on the heart also helps it regain normal rhythm.”

The only problem with this life-saving tip is that it’s untrue.

No one seems to know where this “coughing” advice originated. Rochester General Hospital has disavowed any connection with it. And Mended Hearts has issued a retraction, stating that one of their local chapters published the information without first verifying a medical source.

Nevertheless, it is useful as a jumping off point to clear up some misconceptions.

To begin with, the above description of an oncoming heart attack is closer to the description of a cardiac arrest: an irregular heartbeat, followed by a rapid loss of consciousness. No amount of coughing or deep breathing will help the victim of a cardiac arrest – the ventricles of their heart have begun beating so fast or chaotically that the heart can’t properly pump blood to the body. They need immediate defibrillation, CPR, and emergency care.

A heart attack is triggered by the blockage of a main coronary artery. If the blockage is slight, the onset of the heart attack is often far less dramatic than a cardiac arrest, though certainly no less serious. But again, the coughing and breathing procedure described in the e-mail is not recommended. Anyone experiencing the typical symptoms of a heart attack (tightness in the chest, often accompanied by pain in the arm, jaw or stomach, followed by nausea or lightheadedness) should seek medical help immediately.

I appreciate Austin’s thoughtfulness in sending his e-mail with what appears, at first, to be useful, life-saving advice. But it serves as a reminder of how easily urban legends become fact on the Internet.

To Your Good Health,

Jenny Thompson
Health Sciences Institute


“Cure This Contagious Rumor: Coughing Won’t Fend Off a Heart Attack”