What does a heart attack look like? Does the person having the attack stop what they’re doing, clutch their chest looking panic stricken and drop to the floor? 


by Sarah George-Pitt

A SkillBase First Aid Trainer & Quality Specialist


This is what we know as the “Hollywood Heart Attack” it’s exactly what all the tv programs and films show to demonstrate to the viewer exactly what’s happening without the explanation. *Cue dramatic music* tune in next week to find out what happens

I *love* this video, it’s well worth the 30 seconds to watch! 

In reality a heart attack can look vastly different, signs and symptoms can even vary between men and women.

About 6 in 1000 men and 2 in 1000 women between the ages of 30-69 will have a heart attack each year in the UK.


A heart attack is a blockage in the heart, which stops oxygen getting to all parts of the heart and makes the heart muscle die. Blockages can be caused by blood clot or narrowing of an artery supplying the heart.

Imagine your circulation system being like a motorway all around your body, a heart attack is like the road to the heart being closed for roadworks or traffic cones cutting the three lanes down to one.

Watch my video to learn all about heart attacks 

So if it doesn’t always look like it does on TV, what am I looking for? 

Possible signs and symptoms may include:
  • A crushing pain in the centre of the chest (although some heart attacks are painless)
  • Pain may spread into the back, between the shoulder blades and into the arms (particularly the left arm)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Paler than usual or grey skin, with possible blueness (cyanosis) of the lips
  • Sweating / clammy
  • May be feeling or being sick
  • Dizziness and weakness
  • Women tend to be more prone to painless heart attacks so the crushing pain may not be present or they may be describing a feeling similar to indigestion. This often results in heart attack not being the first aiders radar when they start to feel unwell. (How unfair is that?!)

So now comes the really important bit… What to do about it?!
  • Dial 999 for an ambulance. Do not wait to see if the pain subsides.
  • Sit the casualty down. This will take pressure off the heart and also prevent the casualty hurting themselves if they collapse. It is best to lean the casualty against something and lift and, if possible, support their knees. This is commonly referred to as a ‘w’ position.
  • Reassure the casualty and try to keep them relaxed. A soothed casualty is a surviving casualty.
  • If the casualty has their own medication for a heart condition let them use it. If they do not have any medication, we can offer aspirin if we have it. Although a first aider is not allowed to prescribe medication, an adult casualty may decide to take medication themselves. They should take a normal dose as indicated on the packet (usually 300mg), and you should note any advice of when someone should not take aspirin (for example they have allergies to aspirin or have stomach ulcers). The casualty should chew the medication slowly, which will allow it to transfer into the bloodstream quicker than swallowing. If you are unsure, ask ambulance control for advice.
  • Be prepared to use your emergency plan if the casualty stops responding, or stops breathing.

It would also be really helpful if you can get your hands on a Defib, it could give your casualty a significantly better chance to survive! Check out our guide to using a defib if you’re feeling a little rusty!

Sarah George-Pitt

Sarah George-Pitt is a First Aid Trainer & Quality Specialist at SkillBase First Aid


Richard Craddock · February 7, 2018 at 4:27 pm

Great work Sarah!

Magz Errington · February 7, 2018 at 7:46 pm

Interesting and informative…look forward to the next instalment? 🙂 great work

    Richard Craddock · February 8, 2018 at 4:52 pm

    Thanks – Yes – plenty more to come 🙂

Ady Steele · February 14, 2018 at 9:38 am

Nice video Sarah, and thanks for the training the other day. Very helpful.

    Richard Craddock · February 14, 2018 at 11:46 am

    Thanks Ady – We’ll make sure Sarah sees this! do let us know what you think Sarah should cover in her next guide? 🙂

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