A heart attack happens when there is a sudden loss of blood flow to a part of your heart muscle. Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease.
A heart attack is life-threatening. If you think you or anyone else is having a heart attack, call 999 for an ambulance immediately.
If you’re not sure, it’s still important to seek medical attention to be on the safe side.
Heart attack symptoms vary from one person to another. The most common signs of a heart attack are:
Women are less likely to recognise symptoms of a heart attack and often delay calling 999
- Pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away.
- The pain may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach. For some people the pain or tightness is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable.
- You may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.
It’s possible to have a heart attack without experiencing ‘classic’ chest pain. This is more common in the elderly, women, or those with diabetes as the condition can cause nerve damage which can affect how you feel pain.
During a heart attack there is also the risk of having a cardiac arrest. This is when your heart stops pumping blood and normal breathing stops.
What's the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest?
A heart attack is when one of the coronary arteries becomes blocked. The heart muscle is robbed of its vital blood supply and, if left untreated, will begin to die because it is not getting enough oxygen. If you are having a heart attack you will be conscious.
A cardiac arrest is when a person’s heart stops pumping blood around their body and they stop breathing normally. If you are in cardiac arrest you will be unconscious and need to receive CPR immeidately.
Should I take an aspirin if I think I'm having a heart attack?
The first thing to do if you think you're having a heart attack is to phone 999 immediately for an ambulance.
"Not everyone who has a heart attack experiences chest pain"
You should then sit and rest while you wait for the ambulance to arrive. Do not get up and look around for an aspirin. This may put unnecessary strain on your heart.
Chew an adult aspirin tablet (300mg) if one is easily available, unless you’re allergic to aspirin or you’ve been told not to take it.
If you don’t have an aspirin next to you, or if you don’t know if you’re allergic to aspirin, just stay resting until the ambulance arrives. If possible, get someone to open the door for the paramedic as this saves time.
Most heart attacks happen when the inside of one or more of your coronary arteries become narrowed due to a gradual build-up of fatty deposits called atheroma.
If a piece of this fatty material breaks off, a blood clot forms to try and repair the damage to the artery wall. This blood clot can block your coronary artery, causing part of your heart muscle to be starved of blood and oxygen. This is a heart attack.
You might also hear a heart attack called acute coronary syndrome, myocardial infarction (MI) or coronary thrombosis.
Will it happen again?
Having one heart attack does increase the risk of having another, but this risk is greatly reduced with the correct treatment. And, if you take the medicines your doctors have prescribed for you and follow a healthy lifestyle, you can significantly reduce your risk.
Preventing a heart attack
Living a healthy lifestyle can help prevent you from developing coronary heart disease and having a heart attack.
There are a number of lifestyle factors that can increase your chances of getting coronary heart disease. These include:
If you're 40-74 you should ask your doctor or nurse for a heart health check to assess your risk of having a heart attack in the next 10 years.
Identifying and managing a condition such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol could help lower your risk of a heart attack in the future. You are considered to have a family history of heart and circulatory diseases if:
- your father or brother was under the age of 55 when they were diagnosed with heart and circulatory disease, or
- your mother or sister was under the age of 65 when they were diagnosed with heart and circulatory disease.
For women, your hormones may give you some protection from heart and circulatory diseases in your pre-menopause years. Post menopause, your risk rises - and continues to rise as your get older. It is then important to be aware of the lifestyle factors that can increase your chances of developing heart and circulatory diseases.