The claim: ‘Cough CPR’ can save your life if you’re alone and having a heart attack
A Facebook post that’s been shared 364,000 times over the past year says people who are alone can save themselves if they’re having a heart attack by “coughing repeatedly and vigorously” to get their heart beating normally again.
The post describes a person coming home after a frustrating day at work and starting to experience severe chest pain that extends into the arm and jaw.
It advises people in this situation to first call 911, unlock the door so the paramedics can get in and chew an aspirin (a recommendation supported by Harvard Health).
Then the post describes what’s come to be known as “cough CPR.”
“A deep breath should be taken before each cough, and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as when producing sputum from deep inside the chest. A breath and a cough must be repeated about every two seconds without let-up until help arrives, or until the heart is felt to be beating normally again,” according to the Facebook post.
USA TODAY reached out to the user for comment but didn’t receive a response.
Heart attacks vs. cardiac arrest
Doctors at the Cleveland Clinic say posts like this confuse heart attacks with cardiac arrest, which is the largest cause of natural death in the U.S.
Heart attacks occur when the “heart’s oxygen supply gets cut off, which is usually caused by blockages in the cardiac arteries that feed the heart oxygen-rich blood,” the Cleveland Clinic says in an article addressing “cough CPR.”
“When you have a heart attack, tissue in the heart can die. However, your heart usually keeps on beating,” according to the clinic’s post. “During cardiac arrest, your heart can suddenly stop beating and serious irregularity in the heartbeat (called arrhythmia) can cause this.”
“Cough CPR is an effective way to maintain circulation for a minute or two following cardiac arrest,” says Steven Nissen, a Cleveland Clinic cardiologist, in the post. “However, it’s not useful in a patient with a heart attack.”
Deepak L. Bhatt, a professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, said doctors sometimes ask their patients to cough if “arrhythmia — particularly a slow heart rate — occurs during a heart catheterization.”
“Can coughing help in the event of a sudden, dangerous, abnormal heart rhythm? In theory, yes,” Bhatt wrote two years ago in a Harvard column addressing whether “cough CPR” works.
“Forceful coughing increases pressure in the chest, which helps maintain blood flow. A conscious, responsive person, by coughing forcefully and repetitively, might be able to keep enough blood flowing to the brain to remain conscious for a minute or two until the arrhythmia is treated,” he wrote.
But Bhatt said in an interview that coughing isn’t going to help “someone having bad chest pain from a heart attack. It really is a specific circumstance of an abnormal heart rhythm.”
The Cleveland Clinic says: “When cardiac arrest occurs, unconsciousness and death follow swiftly. Defibrillation is the only way to reliably reset the heart once it has suffered a fatal arrhythmia.”
“The bottom line is that cough CPR is not useful outside of a hospital setting,” Nissen says in the Cleveland Clinic post.
The American Heart Association does not endorse “cough CPR” and says lay rescuers should not be trained in it. “In virtually all lay-rescuer CPR courses, the finding that signals an emergency is the victim’s unresponsiveness. Unresponsive victims will not be able to perform ‘cough CPR,'” the association says.
And the Cleveland Clinic worries that “cough CPR” may cause people having a heart attacks to delay getting emergency help.
Bhatt’s advice: If you’re experiencing substantial chest discomfort, call 911. “Don’t try to tough it out,” said Bhatt, executive director of Interventional Cardiovascular Programs at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.
The Facebook post suggests sharing its contents with 10 people will save at least one life. Bhatt, however, said “the likelihood of this actually helping someone is probably like one in a million.”
Our rating: Partly false
Based on our research, we rate the claim that “cough CPR” can save your life if you’re alone and having a heart attack as PARTLY FALSE. Doctors may have patients “cough vigorously” in limited clinical settings such as heart catheterization. But “cough CPR” is not useful in patients experiencing a heart attack. For most heart attacks — those that do not trigger an arrhythmia — coughing would not make any difference.
Our fact-check sources:
Thank you for supporting our journalism. You can subscribe to our print edition, ad-free app or electronic newspaper replica here.
Our fact check work is supported in part by a grant from Facebook.
This fact check is available at IFCN’s 2020 US Elections FactChat #Chatbot on WhatsApp. Click here, for more.