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For heart attack, learn CPR rather than asking patient to cough

By Keith Roach, M.D. on

DEAR DR. ROACH: There is a story going around the internet again that deep coughing after experiencing heart attack symptoms appears to keep the heart going while seeking help. Is there anything at all to that theory? It is being read by millions. -- M.J.

ANSWER: There is something to the story, but it will only very rarely be of help to a bystander in the field.

I first became aware of this as a medical student, when I saw a resident physician, Dr. Mike O'Connor, rushing a patient on a gurney to the operating room and periodically (every second or two) telling the patient to cough. Eventually I was able to ask him about it, and he told me that a forceful cough can give enough blood flow to the brain that even if the heart isn't pumping normally, a person can stay conscious long enough to get to definitive help. That blood flow prevents the damage that can happen to the brain within minutes if the heart stops entirely.

Unfortunately, this knowledge isn't likely to be of help outside the hospital. More often than not, for the vast majority of the time that someone having a heart attack would need to keep the heart going, a person isn't conscious and cannot cough; people whose heart is beating enough to stay conscious don't need to cough. If you are having symptoms of a heart attack, your best bet is to call 911. If you find an unresponsive person, call 911 and start CPR if you are trained to do so. If you aren't trained, get trained. It's not hard to learn, and you might save a life.

READERS: The booklet on heart attacks, America's No. 1 killer, explains what happens, how they are treated and how they are avoided. Readers can order a copy by writing:

Dr. Roach

Book No. 102

628 Virginia Dr.

Orlando, FL 32803

Enclose a check or money order (no cash) for $4.75 U.S./$6 Can. with the recipient's printed name and address. Please allow four weeks for delivery.

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