ER24 Advanced Life Support (ALS) paramedic Duncan Swart explains the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and what to do until ER24 paramedics arrive. 

No one expects to suffer from a heart attack; because until it happens, you may be unaware you have a heart problem. This element of surprise can be deadly, so everyone needs to know the signs of a cardiac emergency, how to identify it early, and react swiftly.

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when a blockage in an artery supplying the heart muscle prevents the heart from effectively pumping blood through the body. This means less oxidised blood reaches the brain and muscles.

These blockages are commonly caused by fatty deposits containing cholesterol, which become plaques that rupture inside the arteries triggering clot formation. This leads to:

  • Chest pain
  • Trouble breathing
  • Blue lips and tongue (severe cases)
  • Sweating
  • Nausea and vomiting.

ER24 ALS paramedic Duncan Swart points out that pain doesn’t necessarily present in the chest. It could be under either arm, between the shoulder blades, and on the left side of the jaw.

Act quickly

If someone suffers a cardiac emergency, immediately call the ER24 Contact Centre on 084 124. The trained staff will help you identify it quickly and explain what to do until the ER24 paramedics arrive. 

Ask vital questions

While waiting for help, Swart says you should try to keep the patient calm, as further stress could be harmful to them. It’s also important to get answers to these questions:

  • When did the pain start?
  • What were you doing when it started?
  • Does it radiate anywhere?
  • Can you describe how the pain feels?

These answers will help paramedics make swift decisions when they arrive. It’s also vital to know whether the patient has any allergies, if they are using any medication (chronic and acute), have any chronic conditions, or has had any recent surgeries.

Give aspirin if appropriate

Swart suggests giving aspirin to the patient if you are sure they’re not allergic to it. Aspirin prevents the blood from clotting further, making it easier for blood to pass the obstructions in the arteries. If the patient is allergic to aspirin or you’re unsure, wait for ER24 paramedics to arrive with an alternative medication, such as clopidogrel.

Make the scene accessible for medics

While you wait for ER24 medics to arrive, move any pets away from the scene and clear a pathway for the emergency team. “The smoother the pathway is for us, the quicker we can help the patient,” Swart says.