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Last updated: 24.07.17

Common Signs of Heart Attacks and What to Do

Please note that this information does not qualify you as an official first aider, and Virtual College advise calling 999 in the first instance at the scene of an emergency.

This material and any associated assessments do not constitute a qualification or accreditation as an official first aider. All content provided is for general information only.

Virtual College advocate dialling the emergency services before attempting any form of first aid.

Common Signs of Heart Attacks and What to Do

Heart attacks are medical emergencies in which the supply of blood to the heart, or part of the heart, becomes blocked suddenly. This means that the heart muscle itself becomes starved of the oxygen that it requires to operate properly, and significant damage can occur. There are a variety of causes of heart attacks, but blood clots are generally the most common. Some people with conditions such as angina, in which the arteries going towards the heart can narrow, are more susceptible to heart attacks.

In many cases, heart attack victims make a complete recovery, but in severe instances, or those in which medical help is not sought quickly, cardiac arrest can occur. This is when the heart stops beating altogether. It’s important to remember that heart attacks and cardiac arrests are different conditions, but are potentially linked.

Important: Heart attack outcomes are heavily dependent on the speed at which they are treated. If you are in any doubt at all, then call 999 immediately.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

Depending on the cause and the person involved, signs can vary, but the most commonly seen heart attack symptoms include the following:

  • Tightness, heaviness or pain in the chest, which sometimes gives the sensation of burning
  • Pains in the chest that can sometimes spread to the arms, neck and jaw
  • Pale skin
  • The feeling of being light headed or dizzy
  • Fast but weak pulse
  • Sweating
  • Shortness of breath

If several of these heart attack signs occur, then move on to the next section.

What to do when someone is going into cardiac arrest?

As a first aid giver, your job is to manage the situation as best you can until emergency medical help arrives, as you will not be able to resolve the condition. Heart attack treatment can be complex and often requires surgery. As a result, your very first step should be to call 999 and inform the operator that you are dealing with a heart attack victim. Once you have done this, take the following steps:

Step 1: Help the heart attack victim into a more comfortable position. Most authorities recommend that they should sit on the floor, against a wall, and with their legs bent in front of them. This is designed to ease the strain on the heart, and will also help protect them from falling injury, should they fall unconscious at any point. It also makes breathing more comfortable.

Step 2: If it is readily available, you should give the person one 300mg aspirin tablet, and tell them to chew it slowly. You must check beforehand that they are not allergic to this type of drug. Aspirin reduces the likelihood of blood clotting, and as a result, can potentially reduce the risk of the heart attack becoming worse. It’s often used regularly by people susceptible to heart attacks.

Step 3: Try to keep the person as calm as possible, as this will reduce their stress levels and therefore heart rate, while you wait for an ambulance to arrive. You must also continually monitor the person’s condition for changes in breathing, pulse and responsiveness. You may need to be aware of the following important points:

  • Checking levels of response is an important part of determining your course of action. Read our guide on the subject here to find out how to check the response level, and any further action you should take as a result. Virtual College can also deliver a course on the Primary Survey, which teaches the AVPU scale of responsiveness.
  • If someone becomes unresponsive at any point during the heart attack, you will need to open their airway to make sure that they are able to breathe without restriction. Find out how to do this here.
  • In some cases, heart attacks may cause a person to go into shock. This is a defined medical condition, and should not be confused with the mental state of shock. Read more about what this means and what you can do here.
  • In the most severe situations, the person may experience cardiac arrest before an ambulance arrives. Should this happen, you must begin CPR immediately. You can find out how to do this by reading our guide here.

For more information about the first aid related courses that we can deliver to you and your employees, click here to visit our Health & Safety Training section.

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