Harvard Heart Letter

Heart Beat: Gasping shouldn't delay CPR

Heart Beat

Gasping shouldn't delay CPR

While coming out of the theater, you see a fellow moviegoer collapse. You rush over to see if you can help. He isn't moving and doesn't have a pulse, but he gasps for breath every so often. What do you do?

Start CPR as soon as you are sure other folks are calling 911 and looking for a portable defibrillator. Don't let the breathing noises fool you — one-third or more of people whose hearts suddenly stop beating will periodically gasp for breath, snort, moan, or gurgle. It's actually an encouraging sign. In a study from Phoenix, 39% of gaspers who received CPR were revived and survived, compared with 9% of those without any breathing sounds (Circulation, Dec. 9, 2008). Gasping also means you can forgo mouth-to-mouth breathing, at least for the first few minutes. Concentrate on pressing — hard — on the middle of the person's chest as often as you can, about twice a second. If the person gasps or makes breathing sounds while you are doing CPR, don't stop. It doesn't mean he or she is recovering from the attack. But it is a sign that your efforts are effective.

When the heart suddenly stops beating (a cardiac arrest), seconds matter. The American Heart Association urges us to follow what it calls the chain of survival: Recognize the emergency. Call 911. Start CPR. Use a defibrillator as soon as possible to restart the heart. And (this one's for the emergency medical team) start advanced care quickly.

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