What to Do If Someone Is Having a Heart Attack: Must-Know First Aid
If you think someone is having a heart attack, taking action immediately can save their life. Here, heart attack symptoms to look for and what to do next.
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About 790,000 Americans have a heart attack each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). The cause is an obstruction of the blood supply to the heart muscle (usually by a clot in the coronary blood vessels). The outcome depends on how much of the muscle is affected and how quickly help can be given. If you think someone is having a heart attack, always call for help rather than waiting to see if the symptoms subside. The longer you wait, the more damage can occur to the heart muscle, says the CDC. Be sure you’re aware of these 9 things to know about heart attacks before you have one.
Heart attack symptoms
These are the common signs and symptoms of a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association. A patient will experience some but not necessarily all. If the pain subsides with rest, it could be angina (see below).
- Suddenly feels faint or dizzy
- Severe chest pain (persistent and vice-like, spreading up to the jaw and down one or both arms) that does not subside when the patient rests
- Discomfort high in the abdomen (may feel like severe indigestion)
- Breathlessness (patient may be gasping for air)
- Fear (feels an impending sense of doom)
- Pale, gray, clammy, or sweaty skin
- Rapid, weak, and irregular pulse
- Collapses, often without warning
- Possible loss of consciousness
Warning signs of a heart attack are often different in women than in men. Read about the 9 physical and emotional ways heart disease is different for women. It’s also smart to know these silent signs of a heart attack. Here’s how the American Heart Association recommends you should proceed:
Help for a conscious patient
1. Ease the strain on the heart. Make the person having a heart attack as comfortable as possible in a half-sitting position, with his head and shoulders well supported and knees bent to ease the strain on the heart. Loosen clothing at the neck, chest, and waist.
2. Call for emergency help. Keep bystanders away from the patient.
3. Give angina medication. If the patient has medication for angina, help him to take it. Keep him calm and encourage him to rest.
4. Give aspirin. If the patient is fully conscious, give him a full-dose (300 mg) aspirin tablet. Tell him to chew it slowly so that it dissolves and is absorbed into the bloodstream more quickly when it reaches the stomach. Aspirin helps to break down blood clots, minimizing muscle damage during a heart attack.
5. Monitor patient. Regularly check and make a note of consciousness, breathing, and pulse.
Help for an unconscious patient
1. Call 911. This is always the first thing to do if you’re helping someone who is unconscious.
2. Open airway. Check for breathing and be prepared to begin CPR.
3. Send for AED. Ask someone to bring an AED (automated external defibrillator), if possible, while you treat the patient. AEDs deliver a shock to correct an abnormal heart rhythm called ventricular fibrillation, which is the cause of some heart attacks. The machines are found in most public places, such as shopping centers and train stations.
4. Operate the AED. An AED is simple to use. Attach the pads as indicated on the machine; then the machine will talk the operator through the process. An AED will only deliver a shock if the patient’s condition indicates that it is necessary. If you have attached an AED to a patient, leave the machine switched on at all times and leave the pads attached, even if the patient recovers. The American Red Cross has more on how to use an AED.
Wait for the emergency medical technicians. The earlier a person receives advanced medical help, the greater the chances of survival.
A diagnosis will be confirmed at the hospital with an electrocardiogram (ECG) and blood tests. Advanced care may include a stay in the intensive care unit and treatment with drugs or even surgery. The aim is to minimize pain, restore the blood supply to the damaged heart muscle, and prevent complications.
If it’s angina
If the pain subsides after the person rests for a few minutes, it is likely that it is an angina attack. This is a chronic condition in which the coronary (heart) arteries have narrowed so that the heart muscle cannot get enough blood to meet its demands. Someone diagnosed with angina will have medication to use in case of an attack.
1. Reassure. Keep the patient calm; sit her down.
2. Assist with medication. Help the patient find her medication (usually a tablet or spray). If necessary, help her take it. If a patient has no medication at hand, call for emergency help immediately. Treat as described above.
3. Keep watch. The attack should ease within a few minutes. If the pain does not ease or the person has no medication, treat as a heart attack.
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- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart attack."
- American Heart Association: "Warning signs of a heart attack."
- American Red Cross: "AED Steps."
- Reader’s Digest Editors, Reader's Digest Quintessential Guide to Handling Emergencies, Reader's Digest Books, 2016