Each year in the UK 100,000 people are admitted to hospital with a heart attack. The good news is there’s still 1.4 million heart attack survivors alive today, so it is treatable.

It can be difficult to tell a heart attack apart from other conditions which cause chest pain, and this means some people delay hospital treatment, putting themselves at serious risk. A heart attack is time-critical, and the sooner it’s treated the less likely it is to be fatal or cause serious damage to the hurt muscles. Understanding heart attacks and their usual symptoms is therefore crucial.

Before going any further, we would like to stress that a heart attack and cardiac arrest are not two terms for the same thing. This is a common misunderstanding. When suffering a heart attack, the casualty will be conscious, breathing, and in pain, because the oxygen supply to their heart is restricted.

In a cardiac arrest, the heart is no longer beating normally due to abnormal or absent electrical activity – this means the person will be unresponsive and not breathing normally. Cardiac arrest is fatal, becomes irreversible in minutes and requires immediate CPR & urgent emergency medical treatment.

A heart attack may lead to cardiac arrest, in which CPR should be administered, along with use of an AED when possible.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) is when part of your heart muscle is starved of blood and oxygen, causing it to die. This usually happens because of fat deposits in the arteries: if a piece of this fatty material breaks off inside a coronary artery, a blood clot forms to try and repair the damage to the arterial wall. This can, in turn, block the coronary artery to the heart, limiting or stopping the supply of blood along with the oxygen it carries.

This is why obesity, a poor diet and a lack of physical activity are major risk factors for heart attacks. Other risk factors include high blood pressure, smoking, excessive alcohol intake, high blood cholesterol and diabetes.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attack symptoms can vary, and not everyone will experience the common, and best-known, symptoms – this means not all heart attacks will cause serious chest pain. People can sometimes confuse a heart attack with indigestion. Nevertheless, here are the most common symptoms:
  • Vice-like chest pain or discomfort which appears suddenly and does not go away.
  • Pain may spread to the left or right arm or to the neck, jaw, stomach or back.
  • Breathlessness, a feeling of faintness or dizziness, sweating and nausea.
Less common symptoms include:
  • Extreme anxiety (a sense of impending doom)
  • Excessive wheezing or coughing
These symptoms may not necessarily indicate a heart attack and may be due to something else. But you should call an ambulance if your chest pain:
  • Is sudden
  • Spreads to your neck, jaw, arms or back
  • Feels tight or heavy
  • Lasts over 15 minutes
Or if you become short of breath or start to feel sick.

What should you do if you suspect someone is having a heart attack?

If you suspect that you or someone else is suffering a heart attack, here’s what to do:
  • Call 999 for an ambulance
  • Sit yourself/the casualty down and rest
  • Take a 300mg aspirin if there’s one within arm’s reach/assist the casualty in taking one
  • Take/administer angina medication if available
  • Stay calm and monitor vital signs until help arrives

And that’s it! It’s simple – the most important thing is that you understand the symptoms of a heart attack and don’t hesitate to call an ambulance if you believe you, or someone else, is suffering one.

About the author:

Dennis Outram is a senior first aid trainer and a Serving Brother in the Order of St John.
Find out more about Dennis.