First Aid for a Heart Attack: What Should You Do?

By Spader, Catherine, RN

People often think of heart attacks as happening during a time of extreme stress or a strenuous activity, such as shoveling snow. If you have heart disease, these things can increase your risk of a heart attack, but a heart attack can occur anywhere at any time. In fact, heart attacks commonly occur during such everyday activities as shopping, relaxing on the couch, or even after waking up from a restful night's sleep.

What should you do if you or someone else has a heart attack at the grocery store, on the golf course, or at home? First, don’t panic and remember that it’s easy to take a few steps that greatly lower the chances of serious heart damage anddeath.

How Will I Know If Someone Is Having a Heart Attack?

A heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when the heart can’t get enough oxygen. A lack of oxygen causes the heart muscle to die. The most common symptom is chest pain. But this is only half the story. Sometimes people can have other symptoms with—or without—chest pain including:

  • Any type of chest discomfort or pressure, such as squeezing or achiness

  • Feeling queasy or throwing up

  • Looking “white as a ghost” (very pale)

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

  • Feelings of dread or doom

  • Pain, or achiness in your back, shoulders, arms, neck or jaw

  • Dizziness or passing out

  • Weakness or feeling unusually tired

  • Difficulty breathing

What Should I Do If Someone Is Having a Heart Attack?

Here’s what you should do if you or someone you are with has any symptoms of a heart attack, even if they don’t seem serious:

  • Call 911 immediately. The 911 operator may advise taking an aspirin to help prevent a blood clot in the heart. Be sure to tell the operator if you have an aspirin allergy, a bleeding disorder, or are taking blood thinners.

  • Sit or lie down while waiting for the ambulance and loosen any tight clothing.

  • Stay calm. This isn’t easy if you are worried about dying of a heart attack. Anxiety increases the heart’s need for oxygen and is known to worsen a heart attack. Take some deep breaths and remind yourself that help is on the way.

  • Take nitroglycerin if it prescribed to you or the person you are with. Nitroglycerin helps ease chest pain by opening up your blood vessels so your heart doesn’t have to work as hard.

Important points to remember:

  • Don’t wait to call 911 until symptoms go away. Every minute of delay in treating a heart attack increases the chance of permanent heart damage and death.

  • Don’t drive yourself or someone else to the hospital. You will get the fastest possible treatment by calling 911 because emergency response teams will start treatment as soon as they arrive at your door.

  • Don’t wait to call 911 to make other calls, such as to your family, doctor, or insurance company. Most insurance plans cover emergency care for a possible heart attack at any hospital. The hospital staff will make any calls you need or help you do so after you are stable.


You use cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to revive someone who has stopped breathing or whose heartbeat has stopped (cardiac arrest). Not everyone who has a heart attack needs CPR because not all heart attacks cause the heart to stop beating.

If someone suddenly collapses or passes out and is not responding to you, immediately call 911, then:

If you know CPR: Begin chest compressions at a rate of 100 compressions per minute (~18 compressions in 30 seconds). After 30 compressions, begin rescue breathing.

If you don’t know CPR: You can still help! The American Heart Association (AHA) now recommends a simplified version of CPR called Hands-Only CPR. This involves pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest until help arrives, or until the person begins to move or wakes up. This is safe for an adult or child over the age of eight. Any attempt to provide CPR increases a person’s chances of survival.

If an automatic external defibrillator (AED) is available, follow the instructions on the AED device. The AED automatically determines if the victim needs an electrical shock to restore a beating heart. Don’t worry; the AED will not shock a person who does not need it.

Your Guide to Heart Attack

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