Agonal Breathing

Agonal breathing or gasping in someone who is unconscious and unresponsive is a sign that they are in cardiac arrest and need immediate medical help – especially CPR and defibrillation.

This cartoon shows what a cardiac arrest can look like and the initial agonal breaths.

Agonal breathing can be mistaken for someone who is moaning or fighting for breath and is still breathing, albeit not normally – this is, in fact, incorrect and the agonal breaths are just the reflex action of the lungs of impulses from the brain.

Agonal breaths occur in approximately 40% of cardiac arrests experienced outside a hospital environment and can last from as little as 2 breaths to many minutes.

The following video shows an actor simulating a cardiac arrest and agonal breathing.

Key points

  1. Agonal breathing may be a symptom of cardiac arrest, stroke, or another serious condition like cerebral ischemia.
  2. Agonal breathing may sound like gasping, but it can also sound like snorting and laboured breathing. It may even seem as though the person is moaning.
  3. Call 999 immediately if you suspect someone is experiencing agonal breathing and perform CPR until help arrives.