Heart & Stroke Conditions Explained


Heart Attack

A heart attack is a life threatening event that happens when the coronary arteries that supply blood to your heart muscle suddenly become blocked.

If this blockage happens it causes damage to your heart muscle. You might also hear of a heart attack called acute coronary syndrome or myocardial infarction (MI).


Related topics: Atherosclerosis, angina, cardiovascular disease, angiogram, angioplasty and stenting, and tests (ECG, angiogram), cholesterol, hypertension (high blood pressure), diabetes, smoking, exercise, stress.


Heart Attack

Heart attack symptoms are not the same for everyone. The most common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain
  • Upper body pain in the jaw, back, neck or arms
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Weakness
  • Tiredness


The most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. This is usually a crushing or tight pain, which may move to your jaw or your arms, particularly on the left side.

You may also feel short of breath, sweaty or sick. Some people may feel light-headed or lose consciousness. You may become anxious or very afraid.

However 10 to 15 per cent of people who have a heart attack may not feel anything. This is more common in older people, especially women and those with diabetes. Sometimes these people just feel weak, tired or short of breath. Some elderly patients may simply become confused.


Heart Attack

The heart is a hollow muscular organ which squeezes to pump blood around our bodies.

Like all muscles it has its own blood supply and the coronary arteries are responsible for bringing blood, rich with oxygen, to the heart muscle.

Most heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease. The coronary arteries can gradually narrow and become damaged from a condition called atherosclerosis which involves the build up of plaques on the inner surface of the arteries.

If a break occurs in one of these plaques, a blood clot forms at this site in the artery and blocks off the blood supply to some of the heart muscle.

Other uncommon causes of a heart attack include spontaneous coronary artery dissection (SCAD) where one or more of the coronary arteries tear.


Heart Attack

You can do a lot to reduce your chances of a heart attack:

Be active

Get out and do something that raises your pulse for at least 30 minutes, five days every week. You don’t have to run ten miles at Olympic pace, a brisk walk or easy jog will do the job, as long as it’s regular.


Eat well

Step away, at least most of the time, from the pizza and chips. Up the intake of fruit and vegetables and try to include some grains, like rice, in your diet. Fish is brilliant. Eat it twice a week – there are really tasty, and easy to prepare, fresh and frozen fish (without batter) available in all supermarkets these days.


Maintain a healthy weight

Be aware of your healthy range and try to stay within it.


Stop smoking

After one year of quitting the risk of sudden death from heart attack is cut almost in half.


Go easy on the alcohol

Try not to binge and keep under 17 standard drinks a week for men, and 11 for women.



Take time for yourself, your family and your friends.


Get to know your GP

Have your GP regularly check your blood pressure and cholesterol. Don’t wait ‘til it’s too late!


Know your family history

Have your parents or close relatives had heart problems?


Know the symptoms of a heart attack and how to respond. Even if you have already had a heart attack it is really important to reduce the risk of having another and future heart problems.

You will be prescribed medications to help your heart work better, reduce your risk factors or improve your quality of life. You may need to change your lifestyle, make it more heart healthy and reduce your heart disease risk factors.


Heart Attack

Your doctor will make a diagnosis of heart attack based on a number of factors.

It is sometimes a very difficult diagnosis to make and it may take a few days to make sure the diagnosis is correct.

First of all, the type of chest pain and how long it lasts is very important information to help make the diagnosis.

Secondly your doctor will look at an image of the electricity going through your heart called an electrocardiogram (ECG). There are certain patterns on the ECG which suggest a heart attack.

Lastly, your doctor will carry out blood tests, which will help confirm the diagnosis.


Heart Attack

In a heart attack, even if you are not sure you are having a heart attack, every minute can matter so call an ambulance on 999 or 112 (in Ireland).

While waiting for the ambulance to arrive sit and rest. Take an adult aspirin if you have one easily available unless you have been told not to or are allergic to aspirin.

Once you arrive in hospital and a heart attack is suspected, the doctor or nurse will give you oxygen and pain relief. The doctor will then decide what treatment is needed.

If the doctor confirms that you have had a heart attack, then the blocked artery needs to be unblocked as quickly as possible. This is done with an emergency angioplasty and possible stenting of the artery to open it and restore the blood supply to your heart.

Alternatively, you may be given a ‘clot busting’ drug called Thrombolysis that is injected into a vein and dissolves the clot, restoring the blood supply. Great care is taken with these drugs as they can cause bleeding and bruising.

Having a heart attack can be a frightening experience and it is natural to be worried or concerned. How you recover will depend on the size of the heart attack, your age and if you have any other illnesses. Most people recover in about six to ten weeks and are able to return to their normal activities.

Taking part in a cardiac rehabilitation course can help you come to terms with what has happened and get you back to normal as quick as possible.

Support for You

Heart Attack

The Irish Heart Foundation offers a range of free support services to those affected by heart disease or stroke that can greatly improve their quality of life. These include support groups, physical exercise classes, therapy sessions and more.

For more information on these supports, see our Patient Supports page.

If you have any questions about heart disease or stroke, you can also call the Irish Heart Foundation’s Nurse Support on (01) 668 5001 to speak to a nurse specialist who will answer your questions, and give you guidance and reassurance.


Heart Attack

Read our resources for further information:

Read our booklet Step by Step through Heart Attack that covers topics such as the causes, treatments, and living life well afterwards.


  • View our booklet Step by Step through Cardiac Catheterisation and Angioplasty
  • View our Man’s Guide To Heart Health for a more entertaining and yet in-depth look at heart attacks and prevention tips on everything from food to lifestyle.
  • A Guide To Sex and Intimacy for People Living with Cardiovascular Disease. We do not have an online copy of this leaflet. To get a printed copy please contact a Helpline nurse on Freephone 1800 25 25 50 or email helpline@irishheart.ie
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