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Watch for Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs

By Peter Bulik, DO, Cardiologist, Virtua Cardiology

It seems to come out of nowhere. A person suddenly collapses, has no pulse, and stops breathing. In most cases, help arrives too late.

Sudden cardiac arrest is responsible for half of heart disease deaths in the United States. But cardiac arrest may not always be so sudden, with warning signs appearing days or weeks ahead of time.

Out of Rhythm

Cardiac arrest occurs when the electrical impulses that control our heart rate and rhythm become rapid or chaotic, causing the heart to stop beating.

The most common cause of cardiac arrest is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) called ventricular fibrillation. This occurs when erratic electrical impulses cause your heart’s lower chambers to quiver instead of pumping blood.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and external shocks from a defibrillator can help restart the heart and improve your odds of survival. However, without blood flowing to the brain and other vital organs, death can occur within minutes. Time is everything.

Know the Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs

Studies have found that half of people who have sudden cardiac arrest experience warning signs beforehand. These may occur weeks, days, or even just before the event, and include:

  • Intermittent chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unexplained fainting or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Feelings that your heart is racing, pounding, fluttering, or skipping a beat
  • Feeling nauseated or vomiting

Unfortunately, people often don’t take these symptoms seriously, or attribute them to something else. They say their chest pain is probably just heartburn. Or, their shortness of breath, fatigue, nausea, or vomiting is due to a stomach bug, or COVID-19

As a result, we don’t have the opportunity to diagnose and treat your arrhythmia before cardiac arrest occurs.

Most cardiac arrests are caused by a preexisting heart condition, such as a previous heart attack, coronary artery disease, an enlarged heart (cardiomyopathy), heart valve disease, a heart defect present at birth, or an electrical problem like long QT syndrome.

In younger people, cardiac arrest is likely caused by an undiagnosed heart condition.


Eating a Mediterranean-style diet, exercising, maintaining a healthy weight, not smoking, and working with your health care provider to manage your blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes can help reduce your risk of cardiac arrest. Knowing your family history of heart disease is important as well.

Depending on your condition, your provider may recommend medication or an implanted cardioverter-defibrillator, which detects abnormal heartbeats and delivers an electrical shock to restore a normal rhythm.

Cardiac arrest often doesn’t afford a second chance. Know your risks and watch for the early signs so you can get the help you need.

How Heart Healthy Are Your Habits?

Are your lifestyle choices good for your heart, or are there changes you can make to keep your ticker going strong? Take our quiz to find out or schedule an appointment online with a Virtua cardiologist.

Updated January 31, 2022

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