Heart Attack

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack results when an artery that supplies oxygen to the heart is suddenly blocked, starving the heart of oxygen. When this occurs, the heart muscle cells begin to die and the longer the heart is without oxygen, the more permanent the damage.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attack symptoms vary for each person and can be especially different for men and women. Some people experience mild pain or no warning signs before a heart attack, while others undergo serious symptoms weeks or days in advanced.

The most common heart attack symptoms include:

  • Pressure, tightness or pain in the chest and arms which may spread to the neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Light-headedness or sudden dizziness

Heart attack warning signs can be different for women. Some common symptoms include:

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Fainting
  • Cold sweats
  • Pressure in upper back
  • Light-headedness
  • Dizziness

What can cause a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when one or more of your coronary arteries become blocked and starves your heart of oxygen.

Coronary arteries carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart. If there is a build-up of fatty substances and cholesterol, the arteries will begin to narrow making it harder for oxygen to reach the heart.

Over time, these fatty substances harden and eventually become plaque. If the plaque ruptures, blood cell fragments known as platelets usually stick to the side of the artery that has been injured and can clump together to form blood clots. If a large clot forms, it can block a coronary artery which will result in a heart attack.

What are the risk factors leading to a heart attack?

The major risk factors that cause a heart attack are:

How is a heart attack diagnosed?

If you are suffering from a heart attack, you need urgent medical attention at a hospital. A doctor will check your blood pressure, pulse and temperature and assess your symptoms.

Immediate tests which help to indicate if you are having a heart attack (and the degree of damage) include:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • Coronary catheterisation (angiogram)
  • Exercise stress test
  • CT scan
  • MRI

How is a heart attack treated?

The main way to prevent further damage during a heart attack is to restore blood flow to the heart quickly. The faster this happens, the less heart muscle cells will die, which is important as they cannot be repaired of regenerated after injury. If you believe someone if having a heart attack, call triple zero (000) immediately.

Medications for heart attacks

  • Aspirin
  • Thrombolytics
  • Antiplatelet agents
  • Other blood-thinning medications
  • Pain relievers
  • Sublingual spray to dilate blood vessels
  • Beta blockers
  • ACE inhibitors

Surgical procedures for a heart

  • Coronary angioplasty and stenting
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery

How common are heart attacks?

  • There are approximately 56,000 hospitalisations for heart attacks every year.
  • Heart attacks claim the lives of approximately 21 Australians every day. 
  • 50 Australian women suffer a heart attack every day.

How can you prevent a heart attack?

You should have regular physical exams by your doctor to test risk factors, in order to prevent a heart attack from occurring.

Leading a healthy life is the main way to avoid a heart attack. You must also know your family history and if you have unhealthy blood cholesterol levels or high blood pressure, take the appropriate preventative medication recommended by your doctor.

Lifestyle changes include:

  • Avoid smoking
  • Control blood pressure (with medication if it is high)
  • Control unhealthy blood cholesterol through diet or medication
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Manage diabetes
  • Control stress
  • Drink alcohol in moderation
  • Get regular medical check-ups

Ask your doctor for a heart health check which looks at the key risk signs. Download our Heart Health Risk Assessment Guide to take with you to your next doctor's appointment.

Download your Assessment GuideHeart Attack Research BreakthroughResearch into Heart AttacksLearn about other heart diseases