Automated external defibrillators: Do you need an AED?

An AED may save your life during cardiac arrest. Weigh the pros and cons to see if you should get one. By Mayo Clinic Staff

If you've ever watched medical shows on television, you've probably seen people on the brink of death shocked back to life by a doctor who yells "clear," then delivers one or more jolts of electricity to the chest.

This type of procedure can be done in your own home with an automated external defibrillator (AED). But AEDs aren't for everyone. An AED won't resuscitate you if you don't have the specific type of heart rhythm problem that an AED can correct. And in some circumstances, other emergency medical procedures, such as cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), may be just as likely to save your life as shocks from an AED.

Home AEDs are available without a prescription. The question is whether an automated external defibrillator could be useful to you. Consider the pros and cons of owning an AED. Then you and your doctor can decide if it's worth buying the device for home use.

When would you need to use an AED?

Cardiac arrest occurs when your heart's electrical activity becomes disrupted and the heartbeat gets dangerously fast (ventricular tachycardia) or chaotic (ventricular fibrillation). Because of this chaotic, often irregular heart rhythm (arrhythmia), your heart stops beating effectively and can't adequately pump blood.

During cardiac arrest, your brain and other vital organs quickly become starved of blood and the life-sustaining oxygen and nutrients it carries. If you survive, you may have permanent damage to your brain and other organs. The sooner your heart's rhythm is restored the better, since each minute is critical to determining your chance of survival and how much damage you might have.

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is a vital step in the lifesaving process and can keep some blood flowing to your heart and brain for a short time. But often only defibrillation can restore the heart's normal rhythm and ultimately save your life. This is especially true if you experience a type of abnormal heart rhythm known as ventricular fibrillation.

If you're experiencing ventricular fibrillation and an AED is on hand, a bystander could grab it and easily connect it to your chest to check your heart rhythm. If your heart rhythm can be treated with an electric shock, the AED automatically sends an electrical current to your heart muscle. That jolt could reset your heart into a normal rhythm, possibly saving your life. If you use an AED on someone, it's still critical that you call 911 or your local emergency services first, to get help on the way. Remember to begin CPR before you turn on the AED and start CPR again after the shock if CPR is still needed.

If you use an AED on someone, it's still critical that you call 911 or your local emergency services to get help on the way before you begin using the AED.

The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved an over-the-counter AED for home use. Because it's over-the-counter, you don't need a prescription to buy it. The only automated external defibrillator approved for home use without a prescription is the Philips HeartStart Home Defibrillator. The HeartStart AED can be used on children as young as 8 who weigh at least 55 pounds.

Putting AEDs where you need them most

In addition to being carried by police and ambulance crews, AEDs are now commonly available in many public places, including malls, office buildings, sports arenas, golf courses, cruise ships, schools, casinos, airports and airplanes.

The problem, though, is that many cardiac arrests happen in private homes. With an automated external defibrillator in your home, you wouldn't lose precious minutes waiting for rescue workers to arrive with an AED.

Proponents of in-home AEDs say putting them where they're needed most will save thousands of lives each year. If you collapse from cardiac arrest, a family member or friend could quickly grab your home AED, send a jolt of electricity to your heart and, in theory, save your life.

But critics argue there's no reliable evidence that home defibrillators actually save more lives. Critics also fear that people won't call for emergency medical services at all or quickly enough, that they won't maintain their AED properly, or that they'll forget where it's kept.

Jun. 10, 2011 See more In-depth