First Aid Tip: How to Recognise and Treat Heart Attacks

Coronary Heart Disease (CHD) is the leading cause of death worldwide. The WHO report that over 9 million deaths in 2016 were as a result of coronary heart disease. Heart attacks or their medical term ‘myocardial infarctions’ make up a significant proportion of these and it therefore important that any first aider or indeed anyone be aware of the signs and symptoms; it could save a life.

What Is a Heart Attack?

The heart is a muscular organ which pumps blood around the body. Like every other muscle in the body, it requires a good blood supply for itself to ensure enough oxygen & nutrients are delivered and waste metabolic products (such as Carbon Dioxide) are removed.

The heart receives its blood supply from the coronary arteries which branch off from the aorta (the main artery in your body).

If a coronary artery becomes blocked (e.g: due to a clot), then the heart muscle beyond the point of the blockage will not receive an adequate blood supply. This will result in death of the heart muscle which is referred to as a heart attack.

The medical term for a heart attack is ‘myocardial infarction’ (myocardium means heart muscle, infarction is tissue death due to lack of oxygen)

A blockage in the coronary artery causes heart muscle tissue death

Who has a Heart Attack?

Theoretically anyone can suffer from a heart attack, though they are extremely rare in children (and are normally as a result of another severe illness) and rare in young adults. This is because in order to form a clot you need a build up of ‘fatty tissue’ or cholesterol to accumulate in the coronary arteries via a process referred to as atherosclerosis. Atherosclerosis takes years to progress to a stage where an artery could become blocked and is therefore extremely rare in young adults and children. Typically heart attacks occur in the ‘over 40’s’ however due to lifestyle changes such as obesity and smoking, adults younger than this are experiencing heart attacks. Therefore age should not not cloud your judgement when considering caring for a patient with a suspected heart attack. 

How Do I Recognise a Heart Attack?

Common signs & symptoms include:

  • Central chest pain, which may spread to the arms/jaw/back/abdomen that does not ease or go away.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Casualty becomes pale and sweaty
  • Fear and anxiety
  • Irregular or weak pulse

Not all of these symptoms may be present. In fact, some heart attacks can be ‘silent’ with very little pain which is often mistaken for indigestion. There has been some research which suggests ‘silent’ MIs are more common amongst women and diabetic patients.

If you have any reason to suspect a heart attack, you should treat for one. Its always better to be safe than sorry.


Step 1: Call an ambulance/emergency medical help, say that you suspect someone is having a heart attack.

Step 2: Make the person comfortable, if possible ask them to sit on the floor. The best position is known as the “W” position, this involves the person sitting up with their back against a wall with something under their knees to raise them. This reduces the strain on the heart.

Step 3: If you are able to, ask the casualty to chew on a 300mg (big) aspirin. If they have any other medication for their heart (a spray etc.) which a doctor has told them to use in the event of chest pain, then let the casualty use it. Check out our blog post on how aspirin helps in a heart attack.

Try to be reassuring and calm, the casualty will be incredibly frightened and anxious which could aggravate their condition

There is a risk the casualty may loose consciousness. If this happens before the emergency services arrive, place the casualty into the recovery position and monitor breathing. If the unconscious patient stops breathing, start CPR (If the heart attack is large, causing significant tissue death, the heart could stop beating altogether and the patient goes into cardiac arrest).


Learn More About Medical Emergencies

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John Furst

JOHN FURST is an experienced emergency medical technician and qualified first aid and CPR instructor. John is passionate about first aid and believes everyone should have the skills and confidence to take action in an emergency situation.

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1 Response

  1. theshaynee says:

    I had to laugh a little that you called the victim a casualty. I’ve heard a lot about the silent symptoms and things like that. Sometimes panic attacks can feel like a heart attack. But the pulse is never weak during panic attacks.

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