Heart attack and cardiac arrest: emergency treatment

Heart attack

A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, refers to damage to the heart caused when the blood supply to part of the heart muscle is blocked.

Heart attack symptoms

The symptoms of a heart attack may be quite mild and many people take too long to realise they need help.

The most common symptoms are:

  • A feeling of pressure or tightness, crushing pain or unusual discomfort in the centre of the chest, or a feeling like indigestion.
  • Pain or tightness may spread to the shoulders, neck or arms, or it may affect the jaws or throat, making the person feel like they're choking.
  • Some people don't get chest discomfort, but only get symptoms in their arms or throat.
  • Others don't get pains in their arms, but their arms feel heavy or useless.

Other symptoms include:

  • nausea (feeling sick);
  • sweating;
  • breathlessness; and
  • feeling light-headed or dizzy.

Heart attack symptoms usually last for more than 10 minutes. They may stop, or get less and then return. Heart attack symptoms also vary from person to person – some people have no symptoms (‘silent heart attack’), or symptoms can range from mild to severe.

Many people having a heart attack won't admit they are in trouble, or they think it's not serious. It’s important to act immediately if you experience possible heart attack symptoms, especially if:

  • the symptoms are severe;
  • they are getting worse quickly; or
  • symptoms last longer than 10 minutes.

What should you do?

  • Stop what you are doing and rest quietly, either sitting or lying down.
  • If you have been prescribed medicine or spray to treat angina, take your angina medicine as directed.
  • Call an ambulance: dial 000.
  • If directed, take an aspirin immediately (unless you are allergic to it).
  • If breathless, sit up.
  • If you feel faint, lie flat.

Never drive yourself to hospital if you think you might be having a heart attack – call an ambulance.

If you feel heart attack warning symptoms yourself, or see the first signs of someone else suffering from them, don't wait. Medical help is most important in the first few hours. Prompt medical attention can help reduce the amount of heart muscle damage and can help improve the person's chances of survival.

Cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest is when your heart suddenly stops functioning, resulting in loss of effective circulation of blood around the body.

How do you know when someone has had a cardiac arrest?

  • The person is unresponsive.
  • Their heart has stopped beating.
  • Their skin turns pale or blue.

What should you do?

A cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. A person who has had a cardiac arrest won't survive unless the blood starts pumping and the body gets a supply of oxygen very quickly.

  • Call an ambulance: dial 000 and tell the emergency services that someone has had a cardiac arrest.
  • Start CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation). CPR involves mouth-to-mouth breathing and external heart massage through the chest (chest compressions).
  • Act fast: get someone to call for skilled help.
Last Reviewed: 13 May 2015
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References

1. Australian Resuscitation Council. Guideline 9.2.1 – Recognition and first aid management of heart attack (November 2012). http://resus.org.au/?wpfb_dl=26 (accessed Apr 2015).
2. Australian Resuscitation Council. Guideline 8 – Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (December 2010). http://resus.org.au/?wpfb_dl=19 (accessed Apr 2015).
3. Acute chest pain (revised February 2012). In: eTG complete. Melbourne: Therapeutic Guidelines Limited; 2015 Mar. http://online.tg.org.au/complete/ (accessed Apr 2015).
4. Heart Foundation. Will you recognise your heart attack? http://www.heartattackfacts.org.au/fact_sheets/english_Heart_Foundation_Warning_Systems.pdf (accessed Apr 2015).
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