[Skip to Content]
Find care at Nemours Children's HealthDoctorsLocations

Cardiac Arrest

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
  • Listen
      mp3

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest is when changes in the normal electrical activity of the heart make it suddenly stop beating. The heart no longer pumps blood to the body and brain.

Cardiac arrest is a serious health emergency that is rare in children and young adults. Quick medical care makes a person more likely to survive cardiac arrest.

What Are the Signs & Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest?

Blood carries oxygen to the body and brain. In cardiac arrest, the oxygen-carrying blood isn’t being pumped to the body and brain. So the person will lose consciousness (“pass out”) and stop breathing. If the blood does not start pumping again, the brain and other organs get damaged and the person can die.

Before cardiac arrest, a person may have no symptoms. If they do, they might have chest pain, nausea, or dizziness.

What Causes Cardiac Arrest?

The causes of cardiac arrest in adults and children differ. In adults, most cases of cardiac arrest are due to coronary heart disease (narrowing of the vessels that bring blood to the heart), which causes a heart attack.

In children and young adults, causes of cardiac arrest include:

Very rarely, a young athlete can go into cardiac arrest while playing sports. When this happens, it’s usually because they had a heart problem (such as myocarditis, hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, or an arrhythmia) that they didn’t know about. It also can happen when a blow to the chest causes an abnormal heart rhythm.

How Is Cardiac Arrest Diagnosed?

Cardiac arrest in children and young adults is usually diagnosed when they are brought to the hospital after passing out. The doctors will ask questions about what happened and what treatment was given. They will do an EKG, chest X-ray, and blood tests. A cardiologist (heart doctor) will help find what caused the cardiac arrest and suggest treatment.

How Is Cardiac Arrest Treated?

For the best outcome, cardiac arrest must be treated right away. Every minute counts.

If you think that someone is in cardiac arrest, call 911 right away. While waiting for emergency services, treatment should include:

  • CPR: rescue breathing to give oxygen to the blood and chest compressions to pump the blood to the body and brain 
  • using an AED: an AED (automated external defibrillator) helps treat an abnormal heartbeat

Emergency services will continue CPR, reuse the AED (if needed), and start medicines through an IV line to try to get the heart beating again.

At the hospital, someone who has had cardiac arrest will need care in the ICU. When their heart is beating again, doctors will start treatment based on what caused the cardiac arrest. For example, someone who is found to have hypertrophic cardiomyopathy will need medicines and may also need an implantable device to prevent abnormal heartbeats.

Can Cardiac Arrest Be Prevented?

Cardiac arrest can’t always be prevented. But to make it less likely:

  • Encourage your family to live a heart-healthy life by:
    • making smart food choices
    • getting plenty of physical activity
    • keeping a healthy weight
    • not smoking
  • Be sure your child gets regular medical checkups, including a pre-participation sports physical.
  • If your child passes out, gets chest pain, shortness of breath, or other symptoms that concern you, take them to your doctor to be checked.
  • If your child has any heart problems, be sure you follow the recommendations of the cardiologist for treatments, medicines, and what sports and activities (if any) to avoid.
  • Be sure your child wears all sports protective equipment.
  • Talk to your doctor if you’re worried your child has a problem with drugs.

If you haven’t already, consider getting trained to give CPR and use an AED. Older kids and teens can learn this too. Many schools and sports facilities have an on-site AED. Take the time to ask where it is. By being prepared, you may help save a life.

Reviewed by: Amy W. Anzilotti, MD
Date reviewed: January 2023