Would you know if you were having a heart attack? Symptoms explained

Would you know if you were having a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries that supplies blood to the heart is blocked. The underlying cause is coronary heart disease (CHD). Risk factors for CHD include smoking, a high total blood cholesterol level, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and increasing age. A heart attack is a medical emergency. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you have warning signs of heart attack.

To perform its duties, the heart muscle needs a generous supply of oxygen and nutrients, which it receives from blood pumped through the two coronary arteries and their branches.

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. The underlying cause of heart attack is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD is when fatty deposits (called plaque or atheroma) slowly build up on the inner wall of the coronary arteries and cause the arteries to become narrow.

If a blood clot forms in the narrowed artery and completely blocks the blood supply to a part of your heart, it can cause a heart attack. The severity of the heart attack depends on how much heart muscle is permanently damaged.

Heart attack is a medical emergency

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you or someone you are with experiences the warning signs of heart attack.

Warning signs of heart attack

Warning signs vary from person to person and they may not always be sudden or severe. Although chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, some people will not experience chest pain at all, while others will experience only mild chest pain or discomfort.

When having a heart attack you may experience pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of your upper body, in combination with other symptoms. People have described this as ‘like an elephant sitting on my chest’, ‘a belt being tightened around my chest’, ‘bad indigestion’ or ‘feeling not quite right’.

The most common warning signs of a heart attack are pain, pressure, heaviness or tightnessin your:

  • Chest
  • Shoulder(s)
  • Neck
  • Arm(s)
  • Jaw
  • Back.

You may also:

  • Feel nauseous
  • Feel dizzy or light-headed
  • Have a cold sweat
  • Feel short of breath.

You may have just one of these symptoms or you may have a combination of them. Symptoms can come on suddenly or develop over minutes and get progressively worse. Symptoms usually last for at least 10 minutes.

If you have warning signs of heart attack that are severe, get worse quickly or last more than 10 minutes, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.

Why call triple zero (000)?

Calling triple zero (000) gets you:

  • An ambulance fast
  • Treatment as soon as you phone
  • Advice on what to do while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

Ambulance paramedics are trained to use special lifesaving equipment and to start early treatments for heart attack inside the ambulance. Early treatment can reduce the damage to your heart.

The ambulance is the safest and fastest way to get you to hospital. It gets you medical attention straight away.

It is always better to go to hospital and be told it’s not a heart attack than to stay at home until it is too late.

Diagnosis of a heart attack

Tests to diagnose a heart attack include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) – a reading of the heart’s electrical impulses. Sometimes this test is done while you are exercising on a bike or treadmill, which is called an exercise or a stress ECG
  • A blood test – to measure levels of substances released into the blood when the heart muscle is damaged
  • Angiogram (or cardiac catheterisation) – a special x-ray of your coronary arteries.

Treatment of a heart attack

Treatment for heart attack may include:

  • Medicines to dissolve a blood clot – for example, one that is blocking a coronary artery
  • Angioplasty and stent implantation – a procedure to open up a blocked coronary artery using a balloon at the point of narrowing. Once the artery is open, a special expandable metal tube (stent) is left in place to keep it open
  • Bypass surgery – an operation in which blood flow is redirected around a narrowed area in one or more of your coronary arteries. It is also called coronary artery bypass graft surgery (often shortened to CABG)
  • Long-term use of medicines – to lower the risk of further heart problems. Be advised by your doctor, but medicines may include a small regular dose of aspirin, a statin (a type of cholesterol-lowering medicine), a beta-blocker and an ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitor
  • Implantable cardiac defibrillators (ICD) – a small device that is sometimes implanted near the heart to manage abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) that may occur after a heart attack.

Risk factors for coronary heart disease

You can reduce your risk of developing coronary heart disease and having a heart attack by removing or reducing risk factors for it. Risk factors are things that increase your chance of developing a particular disease.

The risk factors for coronary heart disease include:

  • Smoking
  • High total blood cholesterol level
  • Physical inactivity
  • Unhealthy eating
  • Being overweight
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Depression, social isolation and lack of social support.

Other factors that can increase the risk of developing coronary heart disease include:

  • Getting older
  • Having a family history of early death from coronary heart disease, such as a first degree relative younger than 60 years old
  • Being postmenopausal.

Changing your lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart attack

Addressing the lifestyle factors that contribute to coronary heart disease can help reduce your risk of heart attack. Things you can do include:

  • Take medicines as prescribed
  • Be smoke-free and avoid exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke
  • Enjoy healthy eating
  • Be physically active
  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Manage your cholesterol and blood lipid levels
  • Achieve and maintain a healthy body weight.

Where to get help

Things to remember

  • Warning signs differ from person to person.
  • No two heart attacks are the same.
  • Knowing the warning signs of heart attack and acting quickly can reduce the damage to your heart muscle and increase your chance of survival.
  • A heart attack is an emergency. If you experience the warning signs of heart attack, get help fast. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.



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