Can Sex Induce Cardiac Arrest?

Can sex be too much for your heart? You may have seen people die during sex in the movies or on TV. In real life, however, sudden cardiac arrest — or, simply, cardiac arrest — rarely occurs while getting busy. Here, we take a look at the link between cardiac arrest and sex and hopefully put your worries to rest.

Key takeaways:
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    Cardiac arrest is not the same thing as a heart attack.
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    Irregular heartbeats cause most cases of cardiac arrest.
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    Though cardiac arrest can happen during sex, research shows that it’s healthy for the heart.

What is cardiac arrest?

First, cardiac arrest is not the same thing as a heart attack. During a heart attack, the supply of oxygen-rich blood to your heart gets cut off. This quickly damages your heart muscles, killing off cells. The American Heart Association considers a heart attack a circulation problem because it involves blood flow.

Cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is an electrical problem. It occurs when something goes wrong with the heart’s electrical system, which controls your heart’s rate and rhythm. During cardiac arrest, electrical signals in your heart go haywire, and your heart stops beating. That cuts off blood flow to your brain and the rest of your body.

Your organs need a constant supply of oxygen to function — it’s your blood’s job to deliver that oxygen. If your heart is not restarted right away, cardiac arrest will kill you within minutes. In fact, nine out of ten people die of cardiac arrest when it happens outside a hospital, according to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. The American Heart Association estimates that 356,000 such cardiac arrest deaths occur each year.

Sudden cardiac death, the result of cardiac arrest, causes half of all heart disease-related deaths each year. Such deaths occur most frequently in people in their mid-30s to mid-40s. Men are twice as likely as women to die this way.

Certain types of arrhythmias, or irregular heartbeats, cause most cases of cardiac arrest. The likeliest culprit is an arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation, in which the heart’s lower chambers, or ventricles, begin to quiver erratically. This prevents the heart from pumping blood.

Though not the same as cardiac arrest, heart attacks can lead to cardiac arrest. When a heart attack occurs, it can disrupt the heart’s electrical system, causing a life-threatening arrhythmia that stops the heart.

What are the odds of cardiac arrest during sex?

Sex is a physical activity that can raise your heart rate, though not typically as much as other types of heart-healthy aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, or swimming. While it does put some strain on the heart, experts say that sex likely won’t kill you. In fact, most research suggests that it’s good for your heart. However, on rare occasions, it has been linked to cardiac arrest.

In a 2022 study, researchers in the United Kingdom looked at cases of sudden cardiac arrest that had occurred at a single hospital from 1994 to 2020. In total, 6,874 people died of sudden cardiac arrest during that period. Only 17 of those people died within one hour of having sex. That works out to be 0.2% of the deaths. In other words, a very, very small number. The average age of death was 38. About two-thirds of those who died were men. Compared to earlier studies, this study reports a relatively high number of women who died of sex-related cardiac arrest — about one in three, or total of six women out of nearly 7,000 cardiac arrests deaths.

The researchers’ conclusion: sex is a relatively safe activity even in people with heart conditions.

An earlier study, published in 2018, also found small numbers of deaths linking cardiac arrest to sex. The authors looked at 3028 cases of sudden cardiac arrest in Paris between 2011 and 2016. The authors of that study also found that it was rare for cardiac arrest to be sex-related. They calculated that 0.6% occurred while having sex or shortly after.

A third study from 2017 found a slightly higher number of cardiac arrests linked to sex. Out of more than 4,500 cases that occurred between 2002 and 2015, 18 had a sudden cardiac arrest during sex, while 15 had one shortly after sex. Overall, that’s less than 1%. All but two cases were men. However, nearly a third had heart disease, while about one in four had heart failure at the time of their cardiac arrest.

The message: though very rare, cardiac arrest can happen during sex. If you’re concerned about your risk, talk to your doctor.

Recognizing the signs of cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest kills quickly, so recognizing the symptoms and starting emergency treatment immediately are critical. Most people will have at least one symptom in the hour or so before their heart stops pumping blood. Because heart attacks often trigger the type of arrhythmias that cause cardiac arrest, you should know the symptoms of a heart attack. They include:

  • Chest pain (called angina, this is more common in men)
  • Shortness of breath (especially in women)
  • Unusual or unexpected fatigue
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Heart palpitations (this means your heart feels as if it’s racing, skipping beats, or fluttering)
  • Stomach pain, nausea, and vomiting
  • Pain in your upper body, such as your shoulders, arms, back, neck, jaw, and teeth

Don’t ignore these symptoms. Call 911.

Once cardiac arrest happens, the symptoms are dramatic. They include:

  • Loss of consciousness
  • No pulse
  • No breathing
  • Collapse

If this occurs, death will follow if the heart is not quickly restarted.

Emergency treatment for cardiac arrest

If you are with someone in cardiac arrest, call 911 before you do anything else so that first responders will be on their way.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) can help keep blood circulating as you wait for help. CPR involves pressing down hard and fast on the chest — called chest compressions — and breathing into the mouth, or in some cases, the nose, to provide ‘rescue’ breaths. If you have not been trained to perform CPR, a 911 operator can lead you through the procedure.

Some public places, such as airports, shopping malls, schools, and more, have automated external defibrillators (AEDs) on hand. These devices are used to shock the heart to restore its normal function. If there’s one available, but you don’t know how to use it, a 911 operator can walk you through the process.

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