A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries that supplies blood to the heart is blocked. The underlying cause is coronary heart disease (CHD). Risk factors for CHD include smoking, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes, high blood pressure and increasing age. A heart attack is a medical emergency. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you have warning signs of heart attack.
To perform its duties, the heart muscle needs a generous supply of oxygen and nutrients, which it receives from blood pumped through the two coronary arteries and their branches.
A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks one of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. The medical term for a heart attack is acute myocardial infarction (AMI). The underlying cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease (CHD). CHD occurs when fatty deposits (called plaque or atheroma) slowly build up on the inner wall of the coronary arteries and cause the arteries to become narrow.
If a blood clot forms in the narrowed artery and completely blocks the blood supply to a part of your heart, it can cause a heart attack. The severity of the heart attack depends on how much heart muscle is permanently damaged.
Heart attack is a medical emergency
Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance if you or someone you are with experiences the warning signs of heart attack.
Warning signs of heart attack
Warning signs vary from person to person and they may not always be sudden or severe. Although chest pain or discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack, some people will not experience chest pain at all, while others will experience only mild chest pain or discomfort.
When having a heart attack you may experience pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of your upper body, in combination with other symptoms. People have described this as ‘like an elephant sitting on my chest’, ‘a belt being tightened around my chest’, ‘bad indigestion’ or ‘feeling not quite right’. You may have a choking feeling in your throat. Your arms may feel useless and heavy.
The warning signs of a heart attack include pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more of your:
- feel nauseous
- feel dizzy or light-headed
- have a cold sweat
- feel short of breath.
If you have warning signs of heart attack that are severe, get worse quickly or last more than 10 minutes, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance.
It’s important that you call triple zero (000)
- The trained operator will decide if you need an ambulance.
- You will receive treatment as soon as you phone.
- You will receive advice on what to do while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.
The ambulance is the safest and fastest way to get you to hospital. It gets you medical attention straight away. Attempting to drive to hospital in a private vehicle can be dangerous for the occupants of your vehicle and other road users.
It is always better to go to hospital and be told it’s not a heart attack than to stay at home until it is too late.
Heart attack action plan
Learning the warning signs and following an action plan gives you the best chance of surviving your heart attack. You can download a free heart attack action plan (also available in nine languages).
Diagnosis of a heart attack
Tests to help diagnose a heart attack include:
- electrocardiogram (ECG) – a reading of the heart’s electrical impulses. Sometimes, this test is done while you are exercising on a bike or treadmill, which is called an exercise or stress ECG
- a blood test – to measure levels of substances released into the blood when the heart muscle is damaged
- coronary angiogram (or cardiac catheterisation) – a special x-ray of your coronary arteries.
Treatment for a heart attack
- Treatments may include:
- medicines to dissolve a blood clot – for example, one that is blocking a coronary artery
- angioplasty and stent implantation – a procedure to open up a blocked coronary artery using a balloon at the point of narrowing. Once the artery is open, a special expandable metal tube (stent) is left in place to keep it open
- bypass surgery – an operation in which blood flow is redirected around a narrowed area in one or more of your coronary arteries. It is also called coronary artery bypass graft surgery (often shortened to CABG)
- long-term use of medicines – to lower the risk of further heart problems. Be advised by your doctor, but medicines may include a small regular dose of aspirin, a statin (a type of cholesterol-lowering medicine), a beta-blocker and an ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitor
- implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD) – a small device that is sometimes implanted near the heart to manage abnormal heart rhythms (arrhythmias) that may occur after a heart attack.
Risk factors for coronary heart disease (CHD)
You can reduce your risk of developing CHD and having a heart attack by removing or reducing risk factors. These include:
- smoking – either being a smoker or inhaling other people’s smoke (passive smoking)
- having high cholesterol
- being physically inactive
- unhealthy eating
- being overweight or obese
- having high blood pressure
- having diabetes
- depression, being socially isolated and not having quality social support.
- Other factors that can increase the risk of developing CHD include:
- getting older
- being male
- having a family history of early death from CHD, such as a first-degree relative younger than 60
- being a post-menopausal woman.
Changing your lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart attack
Addressing the lifestyle factors that contribute to CHD can help reduce your risk of heart attack. Things you can do include:
- take medicines as prescribed
- be smoke-free and avoid exposure to second-hand cigarette smoke
- enjoy healthy eating
- be physically active
- manage your blood pressure
- manage your cholesterol
- achieve and maintain a healthy body weight
- develop good social support networks and join groups.
Where to get help
- In an emergency, call triple zero (000)
- A doctor or health professional
- The Heart Foundation’s Health Information Service Tel. 1300 36 27 87
Things to remember
- Warning signs differ from person to person.
- No two heart attacks are the same.
- Knowing the warning signs of heart attack and acting quickly can reduce the damage to your heart muscle and increase your chance of survival.
- A heart attack is an emergency. If you experience the warning signs of heart attack, get help fast. Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance.
You might also be interested in:
- Artificial cardiac pacemakers.
- Blood pressure (high) - hypertension.
- Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).
- Chest pain.
- Congestive heart failure (CHF).
- ECG test.
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Last reviewed: September 2012
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