What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attacks

A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, is a very serious, life-threatening medical emergency which must be treated as quickly as possible. Heart attacks are one of the most common causes of death in the UK. Each year around 111,000 people have a heart attack, but thanks to advances in technology and medical treatment death rates are now around 25 percent lower than they were just 10 years ago.

What causes heart attacks?

A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is disrupted. The heart needs a continuous supply of oxygen-rich blood to continue to work normally and the heart muscle will become damaged if the supply is blocked. In most cases heart attacks are related to coronary heart disease, which occurs when the coronary arteries around the heart become damaged or blocked. This in turn prevents blood flow, which can stop oxygen being transported around the body.

If the heart muscle is not treated it will become increasingly damaged and may eventually die. This is why it is always necessary to get emergency treatment if you think you are having a heart attack, or if you come across somebody else who has symptoms of a heart attack. Patients with heart problems will be treated by experts in cardiac medicine.

In addition to coronary heart disease a number of other risk factors contribute to an increased risk of a heart attack:

  • smoking
  • a diet that is high in cholesterol
  • high blood pressure
  • diabetes
  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • being overweight or obese
  • drinking heavily
  • family history
  • age: your risk of having a heart attack increases as you get older
  • Ethnicity: people of certain ethnicities are more likely to develop diabetes and high blood pressure, which increases the risk of a heart attack. People of African, African-Caribbean and South Asian descent have a higher risk of having a heart attack

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Many people are familiar with the symptoms of a heart attack thanks to television hospital dramas and soap operas. However, the symptoms are not always as obvious as they are on television and it is possible to have a heart attack without even realising. This is because some symptoms are associated with less serious conditions. Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • chest pain, which is usually concentrated in the centre of the chest and may feel like tightness
  • pain in other areas of the body, including the upper arms, neck, jaw, abdomen and back; in most cases, the left arm is affected but this is not always the case
  • nausea
  • difficulty breathing
  • feeling dizzy
  • vomiting
  • wheezing
  • coughing
  • extreme anxiety, which is similar to a panic attack

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