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First Aid: Heart Attacks

A heart attack (myocardial infarction, or AMI) is an emergency. It can happen suddenly from a blockage or sudden narrowing of your arteries and reduced blood circulation to your heart muscle. It is the result of years of damage to your blood vessels. Over time, fatty substances collect on the walls of the heart's arteries. This is due to genetic influences as well as lifestyle choices, many of which can result in chronic disease. These arteries become narrower as the deposits build up within the artery walls. Once one of these arteries narrows enough to stop oxygen supply to an area of the heart, a heart attack results.

Step 1. Call 911 NOW!

  • Woman on phone.Call 911 for emergency medical services. Immediate medical care may keep the heart from stopping. It may help reduce damage to the heart muscle to a minimum.

  • When a heart attack is suspected, the victim can be encouraged to chew 1 adult dose or 2 low dose (baby) aspirin tablets. If you are uncertain that the chest pain is from a heart attack, this can be delayed until the emergency medical services arrive.

Step 2. Keep the heart attack victim calm

  • Have the victim stop all activities.

  • Reassure the victim. This will keep him or her calm, so the heart uses less oxygen.

  • Loosen any clothing that may restrict breathing. This includes ties, collars, and belts.

Step 3. Monitor the heart attack victim

  • If the person shows signs that they have stopped breathing, are becoming unresponsive, or his or her pulse has stopped, immediately begin CPR.

  • Perform CPR by pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest. Try to allow the chest to recoil or completely expand in between each compression. The goal is to push 100 to 120 times per minute. Emergency dispatchers on the telephone can give instructions on performing CPR.

  • Do not worry about providing rescue breaths during CPR, unless you have training to do this. If you have the training or able to perform rescue breaths (previously called mouth-to-mouth resuscitation), the goal is to provide 2 breaths for every 30 compressions.

  • Continue CPR until trained emergency professionals arrive or the heart attack victim starts to move.

Warning signs of heart attack

The warning signs of a heart attack can include any of the following:

  • Chest pain or constriction. This is like a belt squeezing the chest

  • Heaviness in the chest area. This is as if a heavy weight is resting on the chest.

  • Heaviness or pain going to the arms, shoulders, jaw, or teeth

  • Shortness of breath

  • Pale or gray skin tone and sweating. Also, cool, damp skin.

  • Feeling nauseated

  • Symptoms that aren't relieved by heart medicine or nitroglycerin

  • Feeling heart burn or indigestion

Online Medical Reviewer: Gandelman, Glenn, MD, MPH
Online Medical Reviewer: Image reviewed by StayWell art team.
Online Medical Reviewer: Snyder, Mandy, APRN
Date Last Reviewed: 6/1/2016
© 2000-2016 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.
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