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Heart attack first aid

Definition

A heart attack is a medical emergency. Call 911 or your local emergency number if you think you or someone else is having a heart attack.

The average person waits 3 hours before seeking help for symptoms of a heart attack. Many heart attack patients die before they reach a hospital. The sooner the person gets to the emergency room, the better the chance of survival. Prompt medical treatment reduces the amount of heart damage.

This article discusses what to do if you think someone may be having a heart attack.

For more information on the condition itself, see: Heart attack.

Alternative Names

First aid - heart attack; First aid - cardiopulmonary arrest; First aid - cardiac arrest

Causes

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow that carries oxygen to the heart is blocked. The heart muscle becomes starved for oxygen and begins to die. See: Heart attack

Symptoms

Symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person. They may be mild or severe. Women, the elderly, and people with diabetes are more likely to have subtle or unusual symptoms.

Symptoms in adults may include:

  • Changes in mental status, particularly in the elderly
  • Chest pain that feels like pressure, squeezing, or fullness
    • The pain is usually in the center of the chest
    • It may also be felt in the jaw, shoulder, arms, back, and stomach
    • It last for more than a few minutes, or it may come and go
  • Cold sweat
  • Light-headedness
  • Nausea (more common in women)
  • Numbness, aching, or tingling in the arm (usually the left arm)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or fatigue, particularly in the elderly

First Aid

If you think someone is having a heart attack:
  • Have the person sit down, rest, and try to keep calm.
  • Loosen any tight clothing.
  • Ask if the person takes any chest pain medication for a known heart condition, such as nitroglycerin, and help them take it.
  • If the pain does not go away promptly with rest or within 3 minutes of taking nitroglycerin, call for emergency medical help.
  • If the person is unconscious and unresponsive, call 911 (or your local emergency number), then begin CPR.
  • If an infant or child is unconscious and unresponsive, perform 1 minute of CPR, then call 911.

Do Not

  • Do NOT leave the person alone except to call for help, if necessary.
  • Do NOT allow the person to deny the symptoms and convince you not to call for emergency help.
  • Do NOT wait to see if the symptoms go away.
  • Do NOT give the person anything by mouth unless a heart medication (such as nitroglycerin) has been prescribed.

Call immediately for emergency medical assistance if

Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if the person:

  • Does not respond to you
  • Is not breathing
  • Has sudden chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack

Prevention

Adults should take steps to control heart disease risk factors whenever possible.

  • If you smoke, quit. Smoking more than doubles the chance of developing heart disease.
  • Keep blood pressure, cholesterol, and diabetes in good control and follow your doctor's orders.
  • Lose weight if obese or overweight.
  • Get regular exercise to improve heart health. (Talk to your doctor before starting any new fitness program.)
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Limit saturated fats, red meat, and sugars. Increase your intake of chicken, fish, fresh fruits and vegetables, and whole grains. Your health care provider can help you tailor a diet specific to your needs.
  • Limit the amount of alcohol you drink. One drink a day is associated with reducing the rate of heart attacks, but two or more drinks a day can damage the heart and cause other medical problems.

References

Hollander JE. Acute coronary syndromes. Acute myocardial infarction and unstable angina. In: Tintinalli JE, Kelen GD, Stapczynski JS, Ma OJ, Cline DM, eds. Emergency Medicine: A Comprehensive Study Guide. 6th ed. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill; 2004:chap 50.

Anderson JL, Adams CD, Antman EM, Bridges CR, Califf RM, Casey DE Jr., et al. ACC/AHA 2007 guidelines for the management of patients with unstable angina/non-ST-elevation myocardial infarction: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines (Writing Committee to Revise the 2002 Guidelines for the Management of Patients with Unstable Angina/Non-ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction) developed in collaboration with the American College of Emergency Physicians, the Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions, and the Society of Thoracic Surgeons endorsed by the American Association of Cardiovascular and Pulmonary Rehabilitation and the Society for Academic Emergency Medicine. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2007;50:e1-e157.

Brady WJ, Harrigan RA, Chan TC. Acute coronary syndrome. In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009:chap 76.

In: Marx JA, Hockberger RS, Walls RM, et al, eds. Rosen’s Emergency Medicine: Concepts and Clinical Practice. 7th ed. Philadelphia, Pa: Mosby Elsevier; 2009.


Review Date: 7/16/2011
Reviewed By: Jacob L. Heller, MD, MHA, Emergency Medicine, Virginia Mason Medical Center, Seattle, Washington, Clinic. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Medical Director, A.D.A.M., Inc.
The information provided herein should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. A licensed medical professional should be consulted for diagnosis and treatment of any and all medical conditions. Call 911 for all medical emergencies. Links to other sites are provided for information only -- they do not constitute endorsements of those other sites. © 1997- A.D.A.M., Inc. Any duplication or distribution of the information contained herein is strictly prohibited.
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