Symptoms of a heart attack 

Dial 999 immediately if you suspect that you or someone you know is having a heart attack.

Symptoms can include:

  • chest pain  a sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing in the centre of your chest
  • pain in other parts of the body  it can feel as if the pain is travelling from your chest to your arms (usually the left arm is affected, but it can affect both arms), jaw, neck, back and abdomen
  • feeling lightheaded or dizzy
  • sweating
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick (nausea) or being sick (vomiting)
  • an overwhelming sense of anxiety (similar to having a panic attack)
  • coughing or wheezing

Although the chest pain is often severe, some people may only experience minor pain, similar to indigestion. In some cases, there may not be any chest pain at all, especially in women, the elderly and people with diabetes.

When to call an ambulance

It's the overall pattern of symptoms that helps to determine whether you are having a heart attack.

Do not worry if you have doubts. Assume that you are having a heart attack and dial 999 to ask for an ambulance immediately.

Paramedics would rather be called out to find an honest mistake has been made than be too late to save a person’s life.

Waiting for the ambulance

It is important to rest while you wait for an ambulance, to avoid unnecessary strain on your heart.

If aspirin is easily available and you know you are not allergic to it, slowly chew and then swallow an adult-sized tablet (300mg) while you are waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

The aspirin will help to thin your blood and restore blood supply to your heart.

Cardiac arrest

In some cases a complication called ventricular arrhythmia can cause the heart to go into spasm and then to stop beating. This is known as sudden cardiac arrest.

Signs and symptoms suggesting a person has gone into cardiac arrest include:

  • they appear not to be breathing
  • they are not moving
  • they do not respond to any stimulation, such as being touched or spoken to

If you think somebody has gone into cardiac arrest and you do not have access to a piece of equipment called an automated external defibrillator (AED), you should perform chest compressions, as this can help restart the heart.

Chest compression

To carry out a chest compression:

  1. Place the heel of your hand on the breastbone at the centre of the person’s chest. Place your other hand on top of your first hand and interlock your fingers.
  2. Using your body weight (not just your arms), press straight down by 5-6cm on their chest.
  3. Repeat this until an ambulance arrives.

Aim to do the chest compressions at a rate of 100-120 compressions a minute.

Watch this video on CPR for more information about how to perform "hands-only" CPR.

The above advice only applies to adults. For information about how to perform CPR in children, see how to resuscitate a child.

Automated external defibrillator (AED)

If you have access to a device called an AED, you should use it. An AED is a safe, portable electrical device that most large organisations keep as part of their first aid equipment.

It helps to establish a regular heartbeat during a cardiac arrest by monitoring the person's heartbeat and giving them an electric shock if necessary.

The charity Arrhythmia Alliance has more information about AEDs.




Vinnie Jones: Hard and Fast - hands-only CPR

Watch Vinnie Jones perform hands-only CPR to the beat of Stayin' Alive. CPR is not as hard as you may think. Just call 999 and then push Hard and Fast. This video was produced by the British Heart Foundation

Media last reviewed: 06/11/2013

Next review due: 06/11/2015

Advice for people with angina

Angina is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms caused by an underlying health condition) caused when the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart becomes restricted.

People with angina can experience similar symptoms to a heart attack, but they usually pass within a few minutes. However, occasionally, people with angina can have a heart attack. It is important to recognise the difference between the symptoms of angina and those of a heart attack.

The best way to do this is to remember that the symptoms of angina can be controlled with medication, unlike the symptoms of a heart attack.

If you have angina, you may have been prescribed medication that improves your symptoms within five minutes. If the first dose doesn't work, a second dose can be taken after five minutes, and a third dose after a further five minutes.

If the pain persists, despite taking three doses of glyceryl trinitrate over 15 minutes, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.

Read more about angina.

Page last reviewed: 13/06/2014

Next review due: 13/06/2016