December 12, 2018
Can a Cough Save Your Life?
Ask the Experts

Can a Cough Save Your Life?

by Berkeley Wellness  

Q: I got a forwarded e-mail that said if I'm driving alone and have chest pain, to cough repeatedly as hard as I can and breathe deeply between coughs—and that this will potentially save my life. Is this true?

A: This e-mail has been circulating for years, usually with the subject line "How to Survive a Heart Attack When Alone." It's a prime example of much of the health advice you'll find on the Internet: mostly bogus but containing a shard of truth. The coughing method is described in the e-mailas a form of "do-it-yourself" CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) that will restore normal heart rhythm and get oxygen to the lungs until help arrives. This simple method could save many lives, you're told, so tell everybody.

Alas, this is wishful thinking, disavowed by Rochester General Hospital—to which the advice is sometimes attributed—as well as the American Red Cross and American Heart Association. The shard of truth in the e-mail is that sometimes, during certain in-hospital procedures, a cardiologist will tell a patient to cough to temporarily raise blood pressure. But not as self-administered CPR. Even standard CPR by a trained professional is only a stopgap. It may sustain a heart attack victim for a few minutes until a defibrillator can be brought in, but it is not very effective. Coughing would be even less so.

Should you develop chest pains while driving alone, pull off the road at once. (If you're about to lose consciousness behind the wheel, better to be parked!) If you have a cell phone, call 911 and tell the operator you are having a heart attack. Give your exact location if you can. Put on your hazard lights or otherwise signal for help. If you have one, chew a whole aspirin (325 milligrams) and swallow it. This will help dissolve a blood clot, if there is one. (It's a good idea to always carry a few aspirin around in your pocket or purse.)

Getting to a hospital, or into the hands of an emergency medical team, does save lives. Make that your primary goal if you have sudden chest pains. Remember, too, that medical advice forwarded from person to person on the Internet always needs to be double-checked. And then, usually, forgotten.