Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) / Sudden Cardiac Death (SCD)

While heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, sudden cardiac arrest ranks third. The average survival rate for people who experience SCA outside of the hospital is right around 10%. Understanding the causes of cardiac arrest can help prevent it.

What is sudden cardiac arrest?

Sudden cardiac arrest is what happens when the heart stops beating suddenly and unexpectedly. Out of nowhere, the patient’s heart stops pumping blood.

What causes sudden cardiac arrest in children?

There are two types of heart conditions that lead to sudden cardiac arrest in children: structural and electrical. A structural defect, like cardiomyopathy, prevent the heart from working properly – it’s too big or the parts are in the wrong place. An electrical defect, like Long QT Syndrome, interrupts the heart’s rhythm.  These conditions are usually hereditary, but can be acquired in some instances. Unfortunately, once our children leave the hospital as newborns, we don’t really examine their hearts again until they are symptomatic or middle-aged adults.

What do sudden cardiac arrest symptoms look like for children?

Sudden cardiac arrest does not always have symptoms. To make it more confusing, the symptoms can be confused with dehydration or asthma.  So, it is important to pay attention and consider the circumstances.

  1. Fainting or seizure during or immediately after exercise
  2. Unexplained shortness of breath
  3. Dizziness
  4. Extreme fatigue
  5. Racing heart (feels like it is beating out of your chest).
  6. Sudden and unexplained death of a family member under the age of 50 (e.g. drowning, auto accident, SIDS).

Download our student fact sheet to learn more

What is the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

We’re going to get a little nerdy now because people are always confusing sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack as the same thing. They aren’t. The cause is different. The symptoms can be different. Think of the water in your home. In one scenario, someone shuts off the water main. In the other, there is a clog in your drain. In both instances, the plumbing isn’t working properly, but the cause and problems are different.

Sudden cardiac arrest causes the heart to just stop. The “main” gets shut off instantly and everything in the body stops working. The person collapses and is unconscious. A heart attack occurs when an artery is obstructed. This blockage can damage or destroy some of the heart muscle. This can be a gradual process, and the person can remain conscious. These two cardiac events have different symptoms and treatments. Your doctor will know the difference!

How common is sudden cardiac arrest in children?

The American Academy of Pediatrics estimates that two thousand children die every year from SCA. It is the leading cause of death of student athletes. However, the actual number of children is not well established. In 2013, the Center for Disease Control and National Institute of Health launched a pilot program to gather data on sudden death of minors. It was launched in ten states. Hopefully, one day, we will actually track the causes of death of our children.

Prevention makes all the difference.

Simon’s Heart provides free youth heart screenings in the Greater Philadelphia area. If you live in other parts of the country, please visit our sister site, Screen Across America, to find a heart screening organization near you.

You should also be prepared to help if sudden cardiac arrest strikes. Learn about chest compressions and AED devices – the Chain of Survival.