Man clutching his chest

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.

Learn about the differences between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest.

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:

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

Learn more about different types of chest pains and its various causes - and also when to see your doctor about it.

What to do if you think someone is having a heart attack?

  1. Call Triple Zero (000) or your local emergency service
    A heart attack is a medical emergency, do not ignore the signs. If you suspect someone is having a heart attack, do not delay, call Triple Zero (000) immediately if you are in Australia. If you live elsewhere, call your local emergency number, like 911 in the USA or Canada. The sooner a person can get to a hospital, the better the chance of survival. Do not attempt to drive if you are suffering a heart attack. If an ambulance is not available, ask a neighbour or bystander to drive you to hospital.
  2. Chew aspirin
    Aspirin can help minimise blood clotting. This could reduce damage to the heart when taken during a heart attack. Do not take aspirin if you are allergic to it.
  3. Take nitroglycerin
    If already prescribed by your doctor for an existing heart condition, take nitroglycerin as directed.
  4. Begin CPR
    If the person is unconscious or not breathing, call for emergency assistance then immediately begin CPR. Push hard and fast in the centre of the person's chest. CPR can save lives.
  5. Use an AED
    If the person is unconscious and an automated external defibrillator (AED) is immediately available, follow the device instructions and voice prompts until emergency assistance arrives.

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:

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 is having a heart attack, call Triple Zero (000) immediately.

Medication for a heart attack

Medications to treat a heart attack can include:

Surgical procedures for heart attacks

Following a heart attack, surgery may be required to open a blocked artery. This can include;

How common are heart attacks?

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:

Ask your doctor for a heart health check which looks at the key risk signs. Download our Heart Health Check Guide to take with you to your next doctor's appointment and visit our Heart Disease Prevention Tips Hub.

Heart attack patient stories

Read the stories of these amazing heart warriors and their heart disease battles.

Acknowledgement of Country

The Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute acknowledges Traditional Owners of Country throughout Australia and recognises the continuing connection to lands, waters and communities. We pay our respect to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures; and to Elders past and present.

Victor Chang Cardiac Research Institute - The Home of Heart Research for 30 Years