Can you really do CPR on yourself?

Everyone knows that chest compression and rescue breaths, when done properly, can help an unresponsive heart attack victim survive long enough to get professional help. But what if you have a heart attack when you’re alone? Can you perform CPR on yourself?

The answer, of course, is no. But a message making the rounds on the internet claims that taking deep breaths and coughing can provide many of the benefits of chest compression.

One such message landed in our in-box the other day. Here’s what it said:

[Heart attack] victims can help themselves by coughing repeatedly and very vigorously. A deep breath should be taken before each cough, and the cough must be deep and prolonged, as when producing sputum from deep inside the chest. A breath and a cough must be repeated about every two seconds without let-up until help arrives, or until the heart is felt to be beating normally again. … Deep breaths get oxygen into the lungs and coughing movements squeeze the heart and keep the blood circulating. The squeezing pressure on the heart also helps it regain normal rhythm. In this way, heart attack victims can get to a hospital.

It was accompanied by a plea that we “tell as many other people as possible about this. It could save their lives!! … A cardiologist says If everyone who gets this mail kindly sends it to 10 people, you can bet that we’ll save at least one life.”


Perhaps, but the American Heart Association doesn’t think so. “The American Heart Association does not endorse ‘cough CPR,’ a coughing procedure widely publicized on the Internet,” the group says on its website. “‘Cough CPR’ is not useful for unresponsive victims and should not be taught to lay rescuers.”

Other medical professionals have also debunked the notion.

“There is no medical evidence to support ‘cough CPR’, which suggests you can help yourself by coughing vigorously if you think you’re having a heart attack and are alone.” said senior cardiac nurse Christopher Allen on the British Heart Foundation website.

In fact, Allen and others say the maneuver could delay efforts to get medical treatment. “If you are still conscious (and you would have to be to do ‘cough CPR’), then you are not in cardiac arrest and therefore CPR is not needed, but urgent medical help is vital,” Allen said.

Put simply, the American Heart Association says that CPR is only appropriate for unresponsive victims. “Unresponsive victims will not be able to perform ‘cough CPR,'” it notes.

Arrhythmia applications

There is a scenario in which coughing may be appropriate, the AHA concedes:

“During a sudden arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), it may be possible for a conscious, responsive person to cough forcefully and repetitively to maintain enough blood flow to the brain to remain conscious for a few seconds until the arrhythmia is treated. Blood flow is maintained by increased pressure in the chest that occurs during forceful coughs. This has been mislabeled ‘cough CPR,’ although it’s not a form of traditional resuscitation.”

The internet message is, like many “virtual chain letters,” somewhat puzzling. It doesn’t endorse a commercial product or attempt to sell anything, so it’s unclear what the motivation for composing and sending it is. Once it exists “in the wild,” well-meaning individuals perpetuate it by sending it to friends, family and complete strangers.

Whatever the motivation, the end result of spreading this little bit of information could do serious harm.

“The ‘cough CPR’ myth has been circulating the internet for a while now, especially on social media sites such as Facebook. If you come across it, please avoid spreading it any further and consider letting the person who posted it know that there’s no truth in it,” Allen advises.


About the Author

James R. Hood
James R. Hood is the editor and publisher of A former Associated Press editor and executive, he has more than 50 years of reporting experience.