What is Agonal Breathing: Know the Causes and Proper Treatment

Last updated:
Jan 25, 2023

Key Takeaway

  • Agonal breathing is an abnormal and often labored pattern of breathing that can occur during the early stages of sudden cardiac arrest.
  • With the help of CPR, individuals exhibiting agonal breathing have a higher chance of surviving cardiac arrest than those who do not.
  • Agonal respiration is characterized by labored noisy breathing with long pauses and gasps.
  • Possible causes of gasping respiration included cardiac arrest, stroke, drowning, suffocation, choking, and opioid overdose.
  • In the event of a gasping respiration and unresponsiveness, it is essential to contact emergency services as the first step.
  • You can respond to cases of agonal breaths by providing CPR chest compressions and using an AED.
  • Other medical intervention include administering drugs to treat the underlying cause and provide ventilation or intubation if oxygen isn't entering the body properly.

Contents

In the event of sudden cardiac arrest, victims may exhibit heavy breathing for a few seconds to a few minutes after their heart has stopped. It is important to note that this type of breathing is not normal and requires urgent action. Continue reading to discover what action to take in response to this agonal breathing.

definition of agonal breathing

What is Agonal Breathing?

Agonal breathing is an abnormal and often labored breathing pattern that can occur during the early stages of cardiac arrest. It is characterized by slow, shallow breaths with pauses in between and is often accompanied by gurgling or snoring sounds. Agonal breathing is not true breathing, and It indicates a person is in cardiac arrest, and medical attention should be sought immediately.

Agonal respiration occurs when oxygen levels are dangerously low. Commonly associated with cardiac arrest or stroke, it is not a voluntary act of breathing but rather a reflexive response from the brain in an attempt to survive. Agonal breathing is often seen as an indicator that a person is nearing death, yet it can also signify that the brain is still functioning. With the help of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), individuals exhibiting agonal breathing have a higher chance of surviving cardiac arrest than those who do not.

What's the difference between death rattle and agonal breathing?

The death rattle is a sound created when a person is close to death as air passes through their throat and chest. It is usually a gurgling noise that occurs due to a lack of muscle control in the throat. Agonal respiration is a type of unusual and labored breathing seen in a dying person. It usually has a pattern of a few normal breaths followed by a series of irregular breaths, and it is often considered to be a sign that death is imminent.

 

What does agonal breathing sound like?

Agonal breathing is characterized by labored noisy breathing with long pauses and gasps. It may sound like gasping breaths, but it can also sound like snorting and labored breathing. It may even seem as though the person is moaning. The abnormal breathing may last for a few breaths or extend to several hours. The cause of agonal respiration will affect the duration and whether there are other symptoms.

agonal breathing causes

What Causes Agonal Breathing?

Agonal breathing can be caused by any interruption of the brain's blood supply, depriving it of the oxygen required for its functioning. Possible scenarios which may lead to agonal breathing include:

  • Cardiac arrest: Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. This prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching the brain and other organs. Cardiac arrest patients usually experience labored, shallow breaths. It is a medical emergency and requires medical attention.
  • Ischemic stroke: Ischemic stroke or cerebral ischemia is the most common type of stroke, accounting for approximately 87% of all strokes. This occurs when an artery that supplies blood to the brain is obstructed.
  • Hemorrhagic stroke: A hemorrhagic stroke is a type of stroke caused by bleeding within or around the brain, which can result in labored breathing characterized by guppy breathing.
  • Anoxic brain injury: An anoxic brain injury is an injury that interrupts the supply of oxygen to the brain, causing damage. Examples of this type of injury include cardiac arrest and ischemic stroke.

 

Other common causes include:

  • Carbon monoxide poisoning
  • Drowning
  • Suffocation
  • Choking
  • Electrical shock
  • Drug overdose

 

What action should be taken for someone with agonal breathing?

In the event of a medical emergency involving agonal respiration and unresponsiveness, it is essential to contact emergency services as the first step. The first aid measures will depend on the underlying cause of the agonal breathing.

Agonal breathing and CPR

You can respond to cases of agonal breaths by providing CPR chest compressions at a rate of 100-120 beats per minute. If available, utilize an automated external defibrillator (AED) to restart the heart of someone in sudden cardiac arrest. Research indicates that cardiac arrest victims exhibiting agonal breathing are likely to benefit most from rapid CPR and defibrillation, increasing their likelihood of survival.

In addition, emergency medical services may administer drugs to treat the underlying cause and provide ventilation or intubation if oxygen isn't entering the body properly. These medical treatments are essential for addressing a dangerous cardiac arrest heart rhythm.

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