Heart attack

Also known as a myocardial infarction (MI)

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a section of heart muscle becomes blocked. If the flow of blood isn’t returned quickly, the section of heart muscle becomes damaged from lack of oxygen and starts to die.

Symptoms of a heart attack can vary. However, if you have severe chest pain that lasts more than 15 minutes it should be assumed to be a heart attack and you should:
  • Dial 111, ask for the ambulance service and tell them you are having a possible heart attack.
  • If available, chew one aspirin, unless you have been previously advised not to take aspirin.
  • Rest quietly and wait for the ambulance.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

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Some heart attacks are sudden and intense but most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort that can be easily mistaken for indigestion. Symptoms often differ between men and women. 

Chest pain/discomfort

If you have chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes it may be a sign of a heart attack. The pain may:

  • initially come and go
  • be in one or both arms (more commonly the left)
  • go into your neck, back, jaw, stomach and abdomen
  • it may feel like: squeezing; pressing; tightness; fullness; pain.

Chest discomfort may not be the worst, or most noticeable, symptom in women. 

Other symptoms

Women are more likely than men to experience the following symptoms, with or without chest pain/discomfort:

  • sweating
  • feeling faint
  • feeling sick
  • vomiting
  • being short of breath.

You may not experience all of these symptoms. If you are experiencing some of them call 111 without delay.

See also: why women ignore heart attack symptoms

What is cardiac arrest?

During a heart attack, part of the heart is starved of oxygen. This can interrupt its rhythm and can cause the heart to suddenly stop beating – known as cardiac arrest. Cardiac arrest is life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention. Read more about cardiac arrest.

Treatment for heart attack

A heart attack needs urgent medical attention. If you think you are having a heart attack:

  • Call 111 and ask for an ambulance and let them know you may be having a heart attack.
  • If available, chew one aspirin, unless you have been previously advised not to take aspirin.
  • Rest quietly and wait for the ambulance.

See also: action plan for heart attack and treatment FAQ

What causes a heart attack?

For many New Zealanders, a heart attack happens out of the blue. But it is usually the result of two processes:

  • the development over many years of fatty deposits (plaques) in the walls of the arteries and  
  • a clot forming on one of the plaques.

Read more about causes of heart attack.

How can I decrease my risk of having a heart attack?

A number of factors increase your chances of developing coronary heart disease. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of having a heart attack. You can’t change some of your risk factors – such as your age, gender, ethnicity and family history – but there are many others you can, such as smoking, blood pressure, weight, activity level and alcohol consumption.

Making positive changes to reduce the impact of these risk factors have will dramatically reduce your risk of cardiovasular disease and heart attack.

Read more about risk factors

Learn more

Heart attack Heart Foundation, NZ
Heart attack NHS Choices, UK
Heart attack – Explained Watch, Learn, Live: Interactive Cardiovascular Library – American Heart Association

Credits: Heart Foundation of New Zealand, 2010. Udated April 2014 by Health Navigator NZ.