Heart Attack FAQ

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What’s the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

A heart attack and cardiac arrest are not the same.

A heart attack happens when the blood supply to the heart muscle is cut off. This is often caused by a clot in one of the coronary arteries. The heart is still pumping blood around the body during a heart attack. The person will be conscious and breathing.

A heart attack can lead to a cardiac arrest. It’s vitally important to get medical attention immediately by calling 999 for an ambulance if you experience heart attack symptoms. 

Symptoms of a heart attack

Heart attack symptoms vary from person to person. They can include:

  • pain or discomfort in your chest that happens suddenly and doesn’t go away
  • pain that spreads to your left or right arm, or to your neck, jaw, back or stomach. For some people the pain or tightness is severe, while for others it’s uncomfortable. It may feel like heaviness, or a burning pain similar to indigestion
  • feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.

It’s possible to have a heart attack without experiencing all these symptoms, and it’s important to remember everyone experiences pain differently. This is common in the elderly or people with diabetes, as the condition can cause nerve damage which affects how you feel pain.

What should I do if I think I’m having a heart attack?

It’s important you get medical attention immediately. Don’t worry about wasting paramedics’ time – a heart attack is a medical emergency. 

You should:

  • call 999 for an ambulance
  • sit down and stay calm
  • take a 300mg aspirin if you have one within reach
  • wait for the paramedics. 

Women have heart attacks too

We know that women tend to wait longer before calling 999 after experiencing heart attack symptoms. 

In the UK, an average of three women die of coronary heart disease every hour, many of them due to a heart attack.

You dramatically reduce your chance of survival if you don’t call 999 straight away.

What causes a heart attack?

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease (CHD).

CHD causes your coronary arteries to become narrowed by a gradual build-up of fatty deposits called atheroma. 

If a piece of atheroma breaks off, a blood clot forms around this to try and repair the damage to the artery wall. 

This clot can block your coronary artery – either a partial blockage (known as NSTEMI) or total blockage (STEMI). This causes your heart muscle to be starved of blood and oxygen. 

Other less common causes of a heart attack include:

  • spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD)
  • drug misuse
  • hypoxia (a sudden drop in oxygen levels in the body).

How is a heart attack diagnosed?

The ambulance team will do an electrocardiogram (ECG) to detect whether you’re having a heart attack. 

If the ECG shows you’re having a heart attack, you’re likely to have emergency treatment as soon as you arrive in hospital. 

If the ECG doesn’t confirm a heart attack you might need further tests to investigate if you are having a heart attack, including:

  • an assessment of your symptoms and medical history
  • physical examinations, including measuring your blood pressure and monitoring your heart rhythm and heart rate
  • blood tests including a troponin test to detect if there’s been any damage to your heart muscle
  • further ECGs 
  • an echocardiogram.

How is a heart attack treated?

Quick treatment to get the blood flowing to your heart muscle again is important. This can reduce the amount of permanent damage to your heart and save your life. 

Many people need to have emergency treatment to restore the blood flow:

  • Coronary angioplasty re-opens the blocked coronary artery by inserting one or more stents. This helps keep the narrowed artery open.
  • Thrombolysis involves giving you ‘clot-busting’ medicine to dissolve the blood clot that’s blocking the coronary artery.
  • Coronary bypass surgery helps to restore normal blood flow by using a blood vessel from your leg, arm or chest in your heart to bypass the blocked artery.

You might not have these treatments if your doctor decides it’s not safe or necessary.

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