Sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency that can lead to death within minutes if not treated. There’s no way to guarantee the prevention of sudden cardiac arrest, but managing your heart health can reduce your risk.

Cardiovascular disease is a leading cause of death in the United States, and it’s the underlying reason for heart attacks and strokes.

Heart attacks are medical emergencies that can vary in severity, with the most severe causing sudden cardiac death. When the heart’s electrical system stops functioning correctly, and blood is no longer pumped to the body, sudden cardiac death happens. Without treatment, heart attacks leading to sudden cardiac death are fatal.

This article explains the first symptoms of a heart attack with sudden cardiac death, possible treatment options, and how you can reduce your risk by taking steps to improve your heart health.

A heart attack occurs when a clot blocks blood flow to your heart. This leads to chest pain and can impair cardiac function.

One life threatening complication of a heart attack is sudden cardiac death, or cardiac arrest.

The heart muscle that is not getting enough oxygen because of a blockage can lead to fatal arrhythmias like ventricular fibrillation. When this happens, the chambers of the heart quiver too quickly to pump blood to the body, like the brains and lungs.

People experiencing sudden cardiac death do not have a pulse and are unable to breathe. Immediate treatment is necessary to prevent death.

It’s important to call 911 right away if someone isn’t breathing or responding. Once you’ve made the call, it’s time to begin cardiac pulmonary recitation (CPR). The 911 operator will walk you through the steps of this lifesaving procedure. They’ll help you begin treatment while you wait for emergency services to arrive.

Sudden cardiac death due to a heart attack can come on with no warning. However, sometimes there are warning symptoms. These include:

Some of these symptoms can mimic symptoms of other chronic conditions. However, it’s important to get medical attention for any new or concerning symptoms, like chest pain, shortness of breath, and fainting.

Sudden cardiac death from a heart attack is often unpredictable and cannot be diagnosed in advance. But there are some conditions that can increase your risk. These include:

  • Coronary artery disease: Coronary artery disease develops due to clogged arteries. When your arteries are clogged, the blood flow to your heart is reduced. This increases the risk of sudden cardiac arrest from a heart attack.
  • Cardiomyopathy: Cardiomyopathy is a heart condition that occurs when there is a problem with the heart’s muscle. In some cases, the muscle is thinned and dilated, whereas in other cases it’s thickened. People with cardiomyopathy are at increased risk for sudden cardiac death.
  • Heart valve conditions: Certain conditions that cause your heart valves to leak or narrow can stretch and weaken your heart muscle. This can increase your risk of sudden cardiac death.
  • Congenital heart conditions: Babies born with congenital heart conditions or abnormalities have a higher chance of experiencing sudden cardiac arrest. Adults who had these conditions treated when they were children still carry a higher risk than people who’ve never had a heart condition.
  • Long QT syndrome: This syndrome is a condition that causes unorganized and irregular heartbeats. It increases the risk of sudden cardiac death.
  • Heart attack: A heart attack can trigger sudden cardiac death in some people.
  • A previous heart attack: Heart attacks can leave behind scar tissue, which can increase the risk of sudden cardiac death.

People without heart conditions can also have sudden cardiac arrest. Sometimes there is a known cause like recreational drug use, but there are times when the cause of a heart attack is unknown.

There is no way to predict sudden cardiac arrest or to guarantee 100% prevention.

But by taking care of your heart, you can help reduce your risk. For many people, this means making heart-healthy lifestyle choices like:

If you’re already at risk for sudden cardiac arrest, your doctor might recommend additional steps. These steps will depend on the exact risk factors you have and may include:

These treatments can help manage the conditions that can lead to sudden cardiac death and can help keep your heart beating as it typically should.

Your doctor might also recommend purchasing an automated external defibrillator (AED) for emergency home use. AEDs can be used to restart your heart if you have a cataclysmic heart attack. They can be a good first treatment before emergency service professionals arrive.

You and your doctor can decide if having an AED machine at home is a smart precaution for you.

Sudden cardiac arrest from a heart attack is a serious medical emergency. It occurs when the heart has an electrical malfunction and stops beating. When this happens, blood is not delivered to the rest of the body. People experiencing a cataclysmic heart attack do not have a pulse and are unable to breathe.

Without treatment, death can occur in just a few minutes.

For many people experiencing sudden cardiac arrest, their first symptom is chest pain. When warning symptoms do occur, they’re easy to mistake for symptoms of other conditions.

There’s no guaranteed way to prevent sudden cardiac arrest, but taking care of your heart and managing any heart conditions you have can help reduce your risk.