A heart attack is an interruption in the supply of blood to the heart muscle, usually caused by a blockage such as a blood clot in an artery. No two heart attacks are the same, so it’s important to recognise the range of signs that could signify a heart attack. Equally important is knowing what to do about it.

What is it?

Heart attacks are often associated with coronary heart disease, a condition that results in the arteries becoming coated in a waxy plaque. If a piece of plaque breaks away inside the artery a blood clot may form around it. If the clot is large enough it can block the artery, preventing blood from reaching a part of the heart muscle. If the clot is not removed then the affected part of the heart muscle will die away through lack of oxygen.

What are the signs?

The classic signs of a heart attack include severe chest pain that may also present as shooting pains in the limbs, neck and jaw, as well as shortness of breath and severe anxiety. A large number of people experience other symptoms though and some do not experience pain (a large-scale study in the USA found that around a third of men and two fifths of women who had suffered a heart attack did not experience any pain at all – sometimes known as a ‘silent heart attack’).

Because oxygen is not being circulated to the vital organs as it should be, signs of shock can develop. Shock is a medical condition and will usually result in the casualty appearing pale and clammy. Breathing becomes rapid and shallow and the heart itself beats more rapidly but becomes weaker. Feeling sick or being sick are other signs and pain, if it is present, may be in other parts of the body such as the lower back or abdomen.

What else could it be?

Other conditions may present with similar signs to a heart attack but regardless of the cause, somebody showing signs of shock needs urgent help. Angina may present with similar signs and symptoms but these should get better with rest and use of the person’s prescribed medication.

Can I do anything to help?

Recognition of the problem is the most important first aid for a heart attack. Somebody who is in shock requires urgent medical attention regardless of the cause so a 999 call is needed. Whilst waiting for help the casualty should be kept warm and comfortable. The ‘Lazy W’ position is often a comfortable position for somebody experiencing heart problems.heart attack treatment

Aspirin is a recognised first aid treatment for heart attacks. Ask a few questions to make sure there’s no reason not to give aspirin first and then give a single adult dose, chewed rather than swallowed whole.

“Do you have any allergies?” (aspirin is related to other non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs including ibuprofen, so caution should be exercised)

“Are you on any medication?” (aspirin should not be given to people on blood thinners and there is a need for caution if on medication for the heart / blood)

“Have you had aspirin before?”

Is a heart attack the same as cardiac arrest?

Although heart attacks can develop into cardiac arrest they are not the same thing. In a cardiac arrest the heart has stopped pumping blood effectively around the body. The casualty will be unconscious and either not breathing or taking irregular, ineffective gasps of breath. Cardiac arrest needs a 999 call, CPR to buy time and a defibrillator if one is available.

Find out more

Further reliable information on heart attacks is available from the British Heart Foundation, NHS Choices and the Resuscitation Council.

Information on our first aid courses for individuals and businesses can be found here.