About 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 coronary arteries and their branches. A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks one or more of the arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle. The medical term for a heart attack is acute myocardial infarction (AMI).
The most common underlying cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease (CAD). CAD 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 a narrowed artery and completely blocks the blood supply to a part of your heart, it will 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.
It’s important to call triple zero, because:
- 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.
Ambulance paramedics are trained to use special lifesaving equipment and to start early treatments for heart attack inside the ambulance. Early treatment can reduce the damage to your heart.
The ambulance is the safest and fastest way to get you to hospital. It gets you medical attention straight away.
Do not drive yourself to the hospital. This is dangerous for you and other road users.
If you live in a remote region and an ambulance is not available, make sure someone else drives you.
It’s always better to go to hospital and be told it’s not a heart attack than to stay at home until it’s too late. Ignoring the warning signs can result in permanent damage to your heart muscle.
Warning signs of heart attack
When having a heart attack, you may experience pain, pressure, heaviness or tightness in one or more parts of your upper body, including your:
This may occur in combination with other symptoms. For example, you may also:
- feel nauseous
- feel dizzy or light-headed
- have a cold sweat
- feel short of breath.
Warning signs of heart attack 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.
You may have just one of these symptoms or you may have a combination of them. Symptoms can come on suddenly or develop over minutes and get progressively worse. Symptoms usually last for at least 10 minutes.
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.
Chew 300mg aspirin unless your doctor has told you not to take it.
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 (available in 17 languages).
Diagnosis of a heart attack
Tests to help diagnose a heart attack include:
- a blood test (called troponin) to measure levels of enzymes (proteins) released into the blood when the heart muscle is damaged
- cardiac catheterisation – a tube, or catheter, is threaded into the coronary arteries via a blood vessel in the groin. A special dye is then injected into the coronary artery. This outlines the artery while movie x-rays are taken. Narrowings and blockages within the artery are outlined by the dye
- electrocardiogram (ECG) – a reading of the heart’s electrical impulses.
Treatment for a heart attack
Treatments for a heart attack may include:
- strong blood thinning medications to rapidly dissolve blood clots that may be 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, and the balloon is withdrawn
- bypass surgery – an operation where a healthy blood vessel (can be a vein from your arm or leg) is attached to either side of the blocked artery in your heart and is used to allow blood flow to your heart again. It’s also called coronary artery bypass graft surgery (often shortened to CABG)
- long-term use of medicines – to lower the risk of heart attack or death in the future. Be advised by your doctor. Medicines may include: a small regular dose of aspirin and an additional blood thinning medication (clopidogrel, ticagrelor, or prasugrel), a statin (to stabilise the fatty deposits in the arteries) and a beta-blocker.
Risk factors for cardiovascular disease (CVD)
You can reduce your risk of developing CVD and having a heart attack by removing or reducing risk factors. These include:
- unhealthy eating
- being overweight or obese
- being physically inactive
- smoking – either being a smoker or inhaling other people’s smoke (passive smoking)
- having high cholesterol
- having high blood pressure
- having diabetes
- having depression, being socially isolated or not having quality social support.
Other factors you can’t change that can increase the risk of developing CVD include:
- getting older
- being male
- having a family history of early death from CVD, such as a first-degree relative younger than 60
- ethnicity – Indigenous, Māori, Pasifika people and those from South Asian countries, are at higher risk of heart disease
- being a post-menopausal woman.
Changing your lifestyle can reduce your risk of heart attack
Dealing with the lifestyle factors that contribute to CVD, which you can change, can help reduce your risk of heart attack. Things you can do include:
- take medicines as prescribed
- eat plenty of vegetables, fruits and wholegrains
- eat a variety of healthy protein sources especially fish and seafood, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts and seeds. Smaller amounts of eggs and lean poultry can also be included in a heart healthy diet. If choosing red meat, make sure the meat is lean and limit to 1 to 3 times a week
- unflavoured milk, yoghurt and cheese – if you have high blood cholesterol you should choose reduced fat varieties
- healthy fat choices with nuts, seeds, avocados, olives and their oils for cooking
- herbs and spices to flavour foods, instead of adding salt
- drink mainly water
- stop smoking and avoid exposure to second-hand tobacco smoke
- be physically active most days of the week
- manage your blood pressure
- manage your cholesterol
- achieve and maintain a healthy weight
- limit your alcohol consumption
- develop good social support networks and join groups.
Where to get help
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