A heart transplant patient wipes his chest.
There's no scientific basis that coughing will help a person having a heart attack, experts say. Image by EPA

No, coughing will not help you survive a heart attack

Meghan Williams March 25, 2022

Heart attack victims can survive by performing a series of deep coughs.


Mostly False. Cough CPR is sometimes used in a clinical setting for some patients suffering a cardiac arrest, which is different to a heart attack.

A Facebook post has recirculated a long-running claim that a person can perform a series of deep coughs to save themself if they are alone and having a heart attack.

The claim is mostly false. Experts told AAP FactCheck that the post confuses two very different conditions – a heart attack and a cardiac arrest – and that coughing will not do anything to help a person having a heart attack.

While “cough CPR” is sometimes used on patients suffering a cardiac arrest under clinical supervision and monitoring, experts say it’s not effective in all patients and should not replace seeking help as soon as possible.

The claim was debunked as early as 1999 when a chain email prompted this Snopes article. It later reappeared on social media, prompting a number of fact checks, including by Health Feedback, Full Fact, and AFP Fact Check. Despite the claim being addressed by numerous fact checks, as well as by a number of medical organisations directly (see here, here and here), it still circulates and recently reappeared in a Queensland-based community Facebook group.

According to the post, a person who is alone and suffering a heart attack can help themselves by coughing.

“Before every cough, you must take a deep breath, and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as in the production of saliva, from the deep of the chest,” it says.

“A breath and a cough must be repeated every two seconds without interruption, until we receive help or until the heart beats normally.”

Experts told AAP FactCheck the claim likely confuses two distinct conditions and that there is no scientific basis for claiming that coughing will help a person who is having a heart attack.

A person suffers a heart attack when a blocked artery prevents the supply of blood while a cardiac arrest is when the heart malfunctions and suddenly stops beating unexpectedly.

Gemma Figtree, cardiologist and professor in medicine at the University of Sydney, told AAP FactCheck that “coughing is not going to open the artery”.

“… the main priorities have to be… getting (the person) quickly to a place where they can have their artery opened,” Prof Figtree said in a phone interview.

Dr Arnagretta Hunter, cardiologist at Australian National University, also told AAP FactCheck: “Cough CPR does not appear to have any scientific basis for people having a heart attack in the community.

“Calling for immediate assistance is best advice for someone who thinks they could be having a heart attack.

“Trying to stay calm and resting can be challenging but can be helpful while waiting for assistance. Good advice is offered by emergency response staff to ensure safety while waiting for help.”

Both Prof Figtree and Dr Hunter agreed the false claim is probably based on the fact that coughing is sometimes used for cardiac arrest in a supervised, monitored environment and with varying degrees of success.

However, Dr Hunter said that “most people who suffer a heart attack do not have a cardiac arrest”.

According to Prof Figtree, some specific types of arrhythmia, such as ventricular tachycardia, can sometimes occur for a period of time while a patient is still conscious. If a patient being monitored in a clinical setting is conscious and appears to be experiencing ventricular tachycardia, they may be asked to cough in an attempt to restore the heart back to a safe rhythm temporarily.

But this method is only beneficial “in a monitored environment, whilst you’re getting a defibrillator connected, et cetera, and it is a very small probability that it actually works,” Prof Figtree said.

Outside of a clinical setting, she said, a person suffering a cardiac arrest should not rely on coughing and should instead seek help as soon as possible.

“The priorities have to be, if you’re in a community setting, obviously getting help, getting a defibrillator if it’s around, and knowing your CPR.”

The Verdict

The claim that coughing vigorously can help a person suffering a heart attack alone is mostly false. Experts told AAP FactCheck that coughing will do nothing to fix the main problem of a heart attack, which is a blocked artery.

The claim is likely based on a practice sometimes used only in a clinical setting on patients who are suffering a cardiac arrest, which is different to a heart attack. If a person shows signs of a heart attack, they should contact emergency services before doing anything else.

Mostly False – The claim is mostly inaccurate but includes minor elements of truth.

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