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Cardiac emergencies

Knowing what to do if someone has a heart or cardiac emergency can save a life.

These skills range from knowing when to call an ambulance, or can involve first aid training.

The British Heart Foundation promotes Emergency Life Support, or ELS, skills needed to help keep someone alive until professional medical help arrives.

ELS skills include cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), treating choking and the recovery position.

How to deal with heart emergencies

Cardiac arrest can be reversed if treated within the first few minutes. The following steps are very important:

  • Early access to care. Quick contact with emergency care is essential. Call 999 immediately.
  • Early cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). Learning CPR is the greatest gift you can give your family and friends. If performed properly (see below), CPR can help save a life until emergency medical help arrives.
  • Early defibrillation. Quick defibrillation (delivery of an electrical shock) is necessary to return the heart rhythm to a normal heartbeat. Some public places such as shopping centres, golf courses and airports may have automated external defibrillators (AEDs; see below) available for use in emergency situations.
  • Early advanced care. After successful defibrillation, most patients require hospital care to treat and prevent future events.

These four steps can increase chances of survival significantly.

What is CPR?

CPR is an emergency technique used to help someone whose heart and/or breathing has stopped.

When a person's heart stops, blood stops circulating throughout the body. If a person stops breathing, the blood can't get oxygen. Therefore, it is vital for people in this emergency situation to receive medical treatment, such as CPR, within the first few minutes of the event.

By administering a combination of artificial, or "mouth-to-mouth", respiration and manual cardiac compression, the rescuer can breathe for the victim and help circulate some of the blood throughout their body.

CPR does not restart a heart that has stopped, but it can keep a victim alive until more intensive treatment (defibrillation) can be administered.

CPR is not difficult to learn, and many organisations offer courses in CPR, including the British Red Cross and St John Ambulance.

What Is an AED?

An AED, which stands for automatic external defibrillator, is a device used to administer an electric shock through the chest wall to the heart. The device has built-in computers that assess the victim's heart rhythm, judge whether defibrillation is needed, and then administer the shock. Audible and/or visual prompts guide the user through the process.

Who can use an AED?

Most AEDs are designed to be used by non-medical people such as fire department personnel, police, lifeguards, airline staff, security guards, teachers and even family members of high-risk persons.

The goal is to provide access to defibrillation when needed as quickly as possible. CPR along with AEDs can dramatically increase survival rates for sudden cardiac arrest.

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