What is an Automated External Defibrillator?

M. DePietro

An automated external defibrillator (AED) is a type of emergency medical equipment used to treat people who have a cardiac arrest. Certain abnormal heart rhythms, such as ventricular fibrillation, can lead to a cardiac arrest. Ventricular fibrillation is an arrhythmia in which the heart beats chaotically. This causes the heart to stop pumping blood throughout the body. Death occurs quickly unless a normal heart rhythm is restored.

Automated external defibrillators may be used to restore the heart's natural rhythm.
Automated external defibrillators may be used to restore the heart's natural rhythm.

A normal heart rhythm can be restored by an electrical shock delivered by the automated external defibrillator. Early defibrillation is one of the key treatments for cardiac arrest. According to the American Heart Association, along with cardiopulmonary resuscitation, use of an automated external defibrillator doubles a person’s chance of survival after a cardiac arrest.

First responders, such as firefighters and emergency medical technicians, usually have an AED as part of their first-aid equipment. Automated external defibrillators are also sometimes available at public locations, such as sports stadiums, school, and airports. Having automated external defibrillators at public locations allows emergency treatment of cardiac arrest to be delivered quickly and can be lifesaving.

Training on how to operate an AED is available through hospitals, the American Red Cross and the American Heart Association. Training focuses on recognizing symptoms of cardiac arrest and using the device safely. The device can also be used even if the operator didn’t receive formal instruction.

Although machines are made by several manufacturers, the steps to use an AED are the same. A computer-generated voice provides directions on how to use the machine. The first step in using an AED is placing electrode pads on the victim’s chest. The automated external defibrillator analyzes the heart rhythm and determines if a shock is needed. A computer-generated voice instructs the operator to push a button and the shock is delivered to the victim.

Even though the machine is simple to use, safety is still a concern. It’s essential the operator does not touch the patient while the shock is being delivered, to avoid getting shocked himself. If other people are around the victim, a warning should be given prior to administering the shock to avoid shocking anyone else.

Automated external defibrillators are regulated by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. A prescription was needed in the past to buy an AED. However, the FDA has approved an over-the-counter automated external defibrillator.

The device is small and can be taken in an automobile or while traveling. It is an additional precaution, which can be taken by people who are at higher risk of cardiac arrest due to medical conditions.

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