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Debunked: No, someone having a heart attack can't perform CPR on themselves by coughing

Doctors say the claim is an urban legend.

For general Factchecks not about Covid

A CLAIM SHARED ON social media has suggested that a person who is suffering a heart attack can give themselves first aid by coughing to relieve their symptoms.

The claim, which was posted on Facebook, alleges that a heart attack patient can save their own life without medical intervention if they begin experiencing the symptoms of cardiac arrest.

However, this is untrue: a person cannot simply stop a heart attack by coughing. Anyone experiencing the symptoms of cardiac arrest should immediately seek medical attention.

A post on Facebook which contains the false claim and has been shared dozens of times outlines a twelve-step routine which explains how a person can carry out Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) on themselves.

It gives an example of a person who arrives home one evening after “an unusually hard day at work” and who begins to feel “a lot of chest pain with extension in [their] arm and jaw”.

“You are about five kilometres from the hospital closest to your home,” the post says.

“You were trained to give first aid, but the guy who taught the course didn’t tell you how to do it yourself.

“How can you survive a heart attack alone? Because many people are alone when they have a heart attack, the person whose heart beats inadequately and feels unconscious is only 10 seconds before losing consciousness.”

The post then suggests that someone in this scenario can simply help themselves by coughing.

“Before each cough, you need to take a deep inspiration and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as in producing sputum, from the depths of the chest,” it says.

“A breath and a cough must be repeated every two seconds without interruption, until we receive help or until the heart beats normal.

“Deep breaths bring oxygen into the lungs and the movements caused by cough compress the heart and maintain blood circulation.”

The post further suggests that doing this can put “pressure on the heart” which will help restore the organ’s normal rhythm and enable a patient to get themselves to a hospital.

‘Urban myth’

However, the suggestion that a person can perform CPR on themselves like this has no medical basis.

Christopher Allen, a specialist cardiac nurse with the British Heart Foundation, explains on the charity’s website that a person experiencing a heart attack is not be able to cough to save their own life.

“A heart attack is when the blood supply to your heart muscle is interrupted; this is most commonly due to a blood clot,” he says.

“A heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest, when your heart stops pumping blood around your body. You become unconscious, and without immediate CPR (chest compressions and rescue breaths), you would die.

“If you are still conscious – and you would have to be to do ‘cough CPR’ – then you are not in cardiac arrest and therefore CPR is not needed, but urgent medical help is vital.” 

Emergency physician Dr Chris Luke also told The Journal that the coughing claim is an urban legend which began doing the rounds a number of years ago.

“Coughing as a response to a cardiac arrest has been the subject of an urban myth for decades, but it has no established role and may waste precious seconds [when a person is having a heart attack],” he says.

He explained that coughing can occasionally help to normalise small and non-life-threatening irregular heart rhythms.

But when a person is experiencing irregular rhythms that are chaotic and life-threatening – like those which cause a heart attack – an automated external defibrillator (AED) is required to save their life.

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Despite this, the claim on Facebook is correct about some of the symptoms of a heart attack.

These can include feelings of chest pain or pressure (which can spread to the jaw, stomach, arm or back), faintness or dizziness, or sudden nausea or weakness.

If a person is experiencing these symptoms, coughing can assist them – but for a different reason than the one outlined as part of the claim, as Dr Luke explains:

If you think you’re having a heart attack and feeling dizzy, [you can] cough once to clear your throat and call for help as loudly as you can. 
The sooner you can relax, the sooner your dangerous raised blood pressure and rapid heart rate may settle, and the sooner you can call for help.

Although coughing alone will not save a person’s life, Dr Luke says there are some ways a person who is having a heart attack can manage their situation before the arrival of emergency services.

“The best approach to dealing with a suspected heart attack is to sit down or lie down, take deep slow breaths in through your nose, and out your mouth, then call for an ambulance and then chew and swallow an ordinary Aspirin,” he says.

“I advise all middle-aged adults who are over 40, or where there is a family history of cardiac arrest or heart attacks, to carry Aspirin on them.

“The sooner you get the Aspirin into you, and the sooner you get to the hospital for a proper diagnosis treatment, the better your chances of a good outcome will be.” 

Luke adds that a person’s outcome will also depend on whether they could be given treatment by someone trained in proven first-aid techniques and the use of an AED if one is nearby.

Ultimately, a person’s best chance of surviving a heart attack is by immediately seeking medical attention and calling emergency services.

There is simply no basis to the claim that you can cough a heart attack away.

The Journal’s FactCheck is a signatory to the International Fact-Checking Network’s Code of Principles. You can read it here. For information on how FactCheck works, what the verdicts mean, and how you can take part, check out our Reader’s Guide here. You can read about the team of editors and reporters who work on the factchecks here.

Have you gotten a message on WhatsApp or Facebook or Twitter that you’re not sure about and want us to check it out? Message or mail us and we’ll look into debunking it. WhatsApp: 085 221 4696 or Email: answers@thejournal.ie.

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