How do I know it’s an emergency?

After a heart attack, you may be more aware of your heart than you were before. You might be worried that every ache and pain is a sign that something’s wrong. At the same time, you might be telling yourself not to be silly, it’s just a twinge and will go away. 

While it’s natural to feel either of these things, the best way to put your mind at rest is to arm yourself with all the facts. So here they are.

Is it a heart attack?

Not everyone has the classic heart attack symptoms seen on TV – clutching the chest with crushing chest pain and sweating profusely.

 Often, a heart attack feels like discomfort, an ache or pressure in the centre of your chest – or even bad indigestion. If you are concerned the symptoms are limiting you doing things, or lasting for more than 15 minutes, you should dial 999.

It’s more likely to be a heart attack if the discomfort spreads to one of your arms, your jaw or your neck, or you feel breathless, sick or dizzy as well. Another thing to remember is that a second heart attack might not feel the same as your first.

What’s the difference between a heart attack and unstable angina (angina that is occurring at rest or with increasing frequency)?

The symptoms of a heart attack or an unstable angina episode may feel the same – and you should dial 999. Paramedics won’t be able to tell whether this is a heart attack until they carry out an ECG, where electrodes are attached to your skin to measure your heart’s activity, and usually a blood test called a troponin test, usually done once you get to hospital. Whether you are having a heart attack or unstable angina, it is important that you are assessed in hospital and managed appropriately.

How long should I wait before I call 999?

The longer you wait to get help, the more damage will be done to your heart. If you delay seeking medical help by four hours, you double your chance of dying of a heart attack.

If you’re having these symptoms but aren’t sure they’re enough to bother the emergency services, call them. They’d rather find it’s a false alarm than arrive 10 minutes later and it be too late. 

What should I do while I’m waiting for the ambulance?

While you’re waiting, sit or lie down and do as little as possible. Don’t eat or drink, apart from a sip of water if your mouth is dry.

Aspirin can sometimes help, but don’t get up and look around for an aspirin, as this may put unnecessary strain on your heart.

If you’re not allergic to aspirin and have some next to you - or if there is someone with you who can fetch them for you - chew one adult aspirin tablet (300mg). If the aspirin isn’t nearby, however, anyone with you should stay with you and not go looking for aspirin.

The paramedics will want to know what medication you’re on, so if possible ask someone else to fetch your drugs while another person keeps you company. Don’t phone or text anyone else. The ambulance team may need to phone you en route to your home. 

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