Heart attack symptoms and first aid

Believe it or not, there are about 2.4 million Canadian adults living with diagnosed heart disease. That means they have a buildup of plaque in their arteries that makes them more likely to suffer a heart attack.

With that kind of prevalence, it’s a good idea to learn how to spot the signs of a heart attack, what to do when one strikes, and how to prevent heart attacks before they happen.

How to spot a heart attack

If you’re in an emergency situation where you think someone is having a heart attack, it’s tough not to panic. In those hectic moments, one way to know what heart attack symptoms to look for is to remember “the four P’s”:


  • Squeezing chest pain
  • Pain that spreads to the jaw, neck, or arms
  • Back pain (happens more commonly in women)


  • The skin may be paler than normal and may even go bluish


  • The pulse can be both rapid and weak


  • The skin may be cold and sweaty
heart attack

Other possible symptoms

While the four P’s are a good starting point, the possible signs of a heart attack don’t end there. They can also include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Light-headedness 

Soft signs

To make matters even more complicated, some people only experience “soft signs” of a heart attack. These soft signs are more common in the elderly, women, and people with diabetes.

  • Mild chest discomfort (it may come and go, lessen with rest, or gradually get worse)
  • Fatigue
  • Flu-like symptoms
  • Gastric discomfort

What to do

If you or someone you’re with is having a heart attack, here are the steps you should take:

When calling 911, you should try to stay calm, speak clearly, and listen carefully. Also, be ready to provide any necessary location information like the address and nearest intersection. Also, stay on the line until the call taker says it’s ok to hang up.

If you need to ask someone to call 911 for you, ask them to let you know once the ambulance is on the way. This ensures you’re not left wondering whether help is coming.

Here are a few more helpful tips for making a 911 call


Have the person sit on the floor with their back leaning against a wall with their knees bent. This is the best position because it can relieve pressure on the heart, and also helps prevent injury in case the person collapses.

call 911

Give them an aspirin

Something you can do for first aid, in some cases, giving the person having a heart attack an aspirin can stop a heart attack in its tracks. It does that by dissolving blood clots in the arteries. You can use a plain, normal-strength aspirin and ask the person to chew it, as that’s the quickest way to get it into the bloodstream.

If possible, you should avoid aspirins that are enteric-coated (those are the smooth, colored ones often labeled as “safety coated”) because they take longer for the body to absorb. Also, make sure the person is not allergic to aspirin.

Perform CPR

If the person collapses and becomes unresponsive, you should begin CPR until help can arrive.

According to the Canadian Red Cross, if you don’t have any CPR training, a compression-only method is acceptable. That’s because unless you’re dealing with a child, or an adult who’s suffering a respiratory issue (like drowning or an asthma attack), there’s already enough oxygen in their blood.

That means you don’t have to remember the ratio of breaths to chest compressions, you can simply start pushing hard and fast in the center of the chest. To get the right speed (about 100 compressions a minute) you can do it to the beat of the song Stayin’ Alive.

Use an AED

Many buildings now have automatic external defibrillators (AED) that offer the best chance of saving someone from cardiac arrest (which means the heart stops beating). And with their automated voice directions, you don’t have to remember anything, just follow the instructions.

What causes heart attacks?

Now that you know some ways to spot a heart attack and what to do about it, let’s look at what causes them and how to prevent them before they happen.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to one section of the heart gets cut off (usually by a blood clot) and that section of the heart begins to die.

Having a buildup of plaque in the heart’s arteries makes these blockages much more likely. But there are many things you can do to improve heart health and reduce your risks.

Maintain a healthy weight

There are some weight loss programs that make it easier to lose weight. They do that by solving imbalances such as hormonal issues that contribute to unhealthy eating and weight gain. When combined with regular exercise, these programs can help you achieve a healthy weight and keep the excess pounds off.

Quit smoking

quit somking
Our Smoking Cessation Programs make quitting easier by combining a range of therapies.

It may seem like an insurmountable challenge if you’re a long-time smoker. But people tend to be more successful when they seek out some help to drop the habit. So consider looking into a smoking cessation program or talking to your doctor about the prescription options.

Get cardiac rehab

If you have a number of risk factors for heart attack, or have already been diagnosed with some form of heart disease, a cardiac rehabilitation program can help. These are customized programs that can involve an exercise plan, nutritional consultation, education, and more. Because they are tailored to patients with heart issues, they ensure that the exercise is always kept at a safe level of intensity, and is designed to help you get the most out of your efforts.

Can aspirin help in heart attacks?

If you are having a heart attack, taking an aspirin can help. But you need to be certain that you are having a heart attack and not a stroke that is caused by a bleed. If you are bleeding, taking aspirin could make things worse. So, you must learn what the symptoms of both medical events are so that you can properly identify what the issue is. If you have previously had a heart attack, ask your doctor about regularly taking a low dose of aspirin, which can reduce your risk.

What is compression-only CPR?

Compression-only CPR is when you administer the chest compressions without pausing to breathe into the person´s lungs. It is an alternative that those who are not trained in full CPR can use to keep someone alive for a short while until proper medical help arrives. However, if someone does not have enough oxygen in their blood, for example, someone who has drowned, chocked on something, had a respiratory event or an asthma attack, this form of CPR will not be sufficient.

How do I go about getting a cardiac rehab program?

Your doctor will be able to help you to get on a cardiac rehab program. If for some reason, they refuse to do that, you can always get a second opinion. In some cases, that may mean paying to see a private doctor. But it is worth doing because there is a growing body of research that shows that cardiac rehab will help you to stay healthy for longer.