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The difference between a Heart Attack and a Cardiac Arrest and how to help with both

As it was Valentine’s Day this week, I thought it made sense for this month’s blog to be all about the heart! When I run courses, I often find people talk about heart attacks and cardiac arrests interchangeably, but do you know the difference, and would you know what to do to help someone with either?

  • heart attack is when the blood supply gets blocked going to the heart (a blocked artery for example). Blood is still being pumped around the body at this time and the person will be conscious and breathing but it causes lots of symptoms such as chest pain and can cause permanent damage to the heart.
  • cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood around the body. If someone has a cardiac arrest, they will lose consciousness and stop breathing or stop breathing normally.

The image above by sums it up perfectly if you prefer things visual.

What to do if someone is having a heart attack

If someone has a heart attack, the symptoms are not always sudden, and they can come on gradually over a few days or even a week.

If someone is having a heart attack, they will complain about some or all of the below:

  • Having a crushing pain in the centre of their chest, that may spread to their jaw, and down one or both arms.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling weak or lightheaded, dizzy or nauseous
  • Having an overwhelming feeling of anxiety or sense of doom

It is important to note that not everyone gets severe chest pain. In women in particular pain can be mild and you can mistake it for indigestion.

If you think someone is having a heart attack:

  • Call 999 straight away
  • Sit them down leaning against a wall (or you if there is no wall!) with their knees bent. (see picture above)
  • Give then 300mg of aspirin to chew to thin their blood. Do not give aspirin if they are under 17 or are allergic to aspirin.

A heart attack can massively increase the chances of someone going into cardiac arrest so if you suspect a heart attack get to hospital straight away.

What to do if someone is having a cardiac arrest

If someone is having a cardiac arrest they will stop breathing and not respond to you. If you see this happen to really important to call 999 and start CPR straight away.

  • Call 999
  • Perform 30 chest compressions at a speed of two a second and a depth of 1/3 of their chest.
  • Perform two rescue breaths
  • If you do not feel comfortable doing the breaths for any reason you can do compressions only continuously.

If there is someone else with you, ask them to go and get the nearest defibrillator/AED. Whilst you are performing CPR they can run and get it and bring it back to you.

  • If the defib is in a locked box, like the one in this picture, you will need to call 999 and give them the number code you find on the box.
  • They will then give you a code to enter into the keypad which will unlock the box and allow you to get it out and take it to the casualty.

Research has shown that using a defibrillator within 3–5 minutes of someone collapsing can increase survival rates to 50–70% (from about 6% without it) so don’t be scared. Defibrillators are really easy to use. It speaks to you and tells you exactly what to do so you just follow the guidance and don’t make any decisions yourself.

If you would like to learn more about how to perform CPR and use a defibrillator, please get in touch to join one of my regular bookable courses or to book your own private course. / On Facebook and Instagram for regular hints and tips on all things first aid.

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