When someone is having a heart attack or stroke it’s vital that you recognise what is happening so that you can act fast.
How to recognise a heart attack
Watch out for the following, but be aware that symptoms vary from person to person.
• Heavy pressure, tightness, crushing pain or unusual discomfort in the centre of the chest.
• This may feel like indigestion and the pain could spread to your shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, teeth, belly area or back. The pain usually lasts longer than 20 minutes. It may stop or weaken and then return.
• Sweating, nausea, faintness or shortness of breath may develop.
• There may be a rapid, weak pulse.
Act immediately if these symptoms occur. Call an ambulance because medical help is most important in the first few hours after an attack. Get the patient to rest quietly – sitting up if they’re breathless and lying down if they’re feeling faint. CPR may be necessary.
The elderly, people with diabetes and women tend not to have the classic tightness, discomfort or pain in the chest. Women, in particular, may have a range of sensations, including:
• An uneasy feeling in the chest
• Abdominal pain
• A fluttering heartbeat
• Shortness of breath
• Dizziness and/or fainting
These symptoms can easily be dismissed as a stomach bug, even hunger. An indication that there’s something more serious wrong is if symptoms get worse when the heart is put under stress, such as during exercise.
How to recognise a stroke
Look out for SUDDEN:
• Weakness or numbness in the face, arm or leg on one side of the body
• Loss of speech, or difficulty speaking or understanding speech
• Trouble seeing from one or both eyes
• Unexplained dizziness
• Loss of balance or difficulty walking
• Severe and unusual headache
Remember this easy, FAST mnemonic to help you in an emergency:
Face – SMILE. Is one side droopy?
Arms – RAISE BOTH. Is one side weak?
Speech – SPEAK A SIMPLE SENTENCE. Is it slurred? Impossible or difficult?
Time – Lost time could mean loss of brain. Get to hospital FAST.
If a person has one or more of these symptoms, get immediate medical attention – it is most vital in the first few hours. If the patient becomes unconscious, call an ambulance immediately.
TIA – a vital warning sign
About 10 percent of strokes are preceded by temporary or mini strokes, referred to as transient ischaemic attacks (TIAs). They have the same symptoms as a stroke, but are less severe and are temporary, lasting from only a few minutes to a few hours. There is no long-term damage to the brain.
Do not ignore this warning sign – it could indicate a future stroke. Prompt medical attention can prevent a fatal or disabling stroke.
TOMORROW: Factors that increase your risk for heart disease
This article originally appeared in Heart magazine, for the Heart and Stroke Foundation SA