If you suspect the symptoms of a heart attack, call 999 immediately and ask for an ambulance.
Do not worry if you have doubts. Paramedics would rather be called out to find an honest mistake has been made than be too late to save a person's life.
Symptoms of a heart attack 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 tummy (abdomen)
- feeling lightheaded or dizzy
- 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, older people, and people who have diabetes.
It's the overall pattern of symptoms that helps to determine whether you are having a heart attack.
Waiting for an ambulance
If you have had a heart attack, it's important that you rest while you wait for an ambulance, to avoid unnecessary strain on your heart.
If aspirin is available and you are not allergic to it, slowly chew and then swallow an adult-size tablet (300mg) while you wait for the ambulance.
Aspirin helps to thin your blood and improve blood flow to your heart.
In some cases, a complication called ventricular arrhythmia can cause the heart to stop beating. This is known as sudden cardiac arrest.
Signs and symptoms that suggest a person has gone into cardiac arrest include:
- they appear not to be breathing
- they're not moving
- they don't 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 an automated external defibrillator (AED), you should perform chest compressions, as this can help restart the heart.
To do chest compressions on an adult:
- 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.
- Using your body weight (not just your arms), press straight down by 5 to 6cm on their chest.
- Repeat this until an ambulance arrives.
Aim to do 100 to 120 compressions a minute. Watch the video on "hands-only" CPR from the British Heart Foundation.
Find out about how to resuscitate a child.
Automated external defibrillator (AED)
If you have access to an AED, you should use it. An AED is a safe, portable electrical device that most large organisations keep as part of 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.
Find out more about and AED from the Arrhythmia Alliance.
Angina and heart attacks
Angina is a syndrome (a collection of symptoms caused by an underlying health condition) caused by the supply of oxygen-rich blood to the heart becoming restricted.
People with angina can experience similar symptoms to a heart attack, but they usually happen during exercise and pass within a few minutes.
However, occasionally, people with angina can have a heart attack. It's 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 medicine, but symptoms of a heart attack cannot.
If you have angina, you may have been prescribed medicine (glyceryl trinitrate) that improves your symptoms within 5 minutes. If the first dose does not work, a second dose can be taken after 5 minutes, and a third dose after a further 5 minutes.
If the pain persists, despite taking 3 doses of glyceryl trinitrate over 15 minutes, call 999 and ask for an ambulance.
Page last reviewed: 28 November 2019
Next review due: 28 November 2022