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Preventing Sudden Cardiac Arrest in Children

A new study released by the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia is suggesting that a simple and inexpensive screening can potentially identify children who are at risk for serious heart issues. While relatively uncommon, sudden cardiac arrest is attributed to anywhere from 100 to 1,000 or more childhood deaths each year. This condition is caused by structural or electrical abnormalities, which often show no symptoms and are rarely diagnosed.

However, scientists now say that a 10-minute electrocardiogram (EKG) screening can detect these otherwise silent killers. Currently, guidelines from the American Heart Association recommend the screening only for competitive athletes, not the general public. In other countries like Italy and Japan, health screenings are mandatory for all athletes and schoolchildren. Researchers there found that adding an EKG to their exam process increased the likelihood of discovering children at risk for sudden cardiac arrest.

In the study, researchers screened 400 healthy subjects aged 5-19 using a medical history questionnaire, a physical examination and an EKG. During the screening, researchers found 23 subjects with undiagnosed cardiac abnormalities, ten of which were considered potentially serious. Another 20 subjects showed signs of hypertension. None of the people diagnosed with cardiac issues had a family history of sudden cardiac arrest, and almost none of them had exhibited symptoms.

While scientists aren’t quite ready to recommend that every child in the country go out and get screened, they are looking to find ways to implement this potentially life-saving test on a broader scale. Even though sudden cardiac arrest cannot always be detected or diagnosed, there are some simple steps parents can take to ensure their child is safe at home and school:

  • Make sure your child’s doctor is fully aware of any family history of heart conditions. Having a complete family history is often the first line of defense doctors use to predict underlying conditions.
  • Carefully monitor any and all symptoms. Often times, symptoms of sudden cardiac arrest seem harmless and can be dismissed by doctors or attributed to lesser conditions. If your child exhibits fatigue, chest pain, heart palpitations, fainting or shortness of breath, contact a doctor immediately.
  • Contact your child’s school or care facility and make sure that they have an automatic external defibrillator (AED) on the premises. When a child goes into sudden cardiac arrest, the first few minutes are vital, and medical responders often don’t arrive in time.  While a few states are now requiring schools to have an AED, it is more often left up to the school system to decide whether or not they have one available.

If you have a family history of severe heart conditions, or want to learn more about how to detect and prevent sudden cardiac arrest, contact a cardiologist.

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