Heart attack - Symptoms 

Symptoms of a heart attack 

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: 05/01/2012

Next review due: 05/01/2014

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 be able 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 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 does not 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.

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

Symptoms include:

  • chest pain: usually located in the centre of your chest and can feel like a sensation of pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • 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
  • shortness of breath
  • feeling sick
  • being sick
  • an overwhelming sense of anxiety (similar to having a panic attack)
  • feeling light headed
  • coughing
  • wheezing

The level of pain can vary significantly from person to person. For many the pain is severe and it has been described as feeling like ‘an elephant sitting on my chest’. For others, pain can be minor and similar to that experienced during indigestion.

Also, people with diabetes, some women, and older people do not experience any chest pain at all.

It is not the level of chest pain that is important in determining whether you are having a heart attack, it’s the overall pattern of symptoms that is important.

Do not worry if you have doubts about whether your symptoms indicate you are having a heart attack. 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 called out when it is too late to save a person’s life.

Waiting for the ambulance

If you know that you are not allergic to aspirin and aspirin is easily available, slowly chew and then swallow an adult size tablet (300 mg) 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 lead to the heart first going into spasm and then stopping beating altogether. This is known as sudden cardiac arrest.

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

  • they appear to not 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 (see below) you should perform chest compressions as this can help restart the heart.

Chest compression

To carry out a chest compression, place the heel of your hand at the centre of the person’s chest, in between their nipples. Place your other hand on top of your first hand and interlock your fingers. Using your body weight (not just your arms), press straight down (4-5cm) onto their chest.

Aim to do the chest compressions at a rate of 100 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

If you have access to a device called an automated external defibrillator, which is a portable electrical device that effectively ‘reboots’ the heart, you should use it. Most large organisations keep an AED as part of their first aid equipment.

The charity Arrhythmia Alliance has more information about AEDs.




Page last reviewed: 13/03/2012

Next review due: 13/03/2014

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