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Heart attack

12-minute read

Call triple zero (000) for an ambulance immediately if you or someone else may be having a heart attack.

Key facts

  • A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to your heart is blocked and your heart muscle can’t get enough oxygen.
  • Common symptoms of a heart attack are chest pain, feeling breathless and sweating.
  • Heart attacks are mostly caused by coronary heart disease.
  • You can reduce your risk of having a heart attack by adopting a healthy lifestyle.

What is a heart attack?

To work properly, your heart needs a continuous supply of blood. It normally receives this from blood vessels called coronary arteries.

When a coronary artery suddenly becomes blocked, oxygen can’t get to your heart muscle. This causes a heart attack (or ‘myocardial infarction’).

A heart attack is a medical emergency: without oxygen, your heart muscle begins to die and your heart can become permanently damaged.

Heart attacks can be fatal — every day, 17 Australians die from a heart attack. One patient is admitted to hospital due to heart attack every 13 minutes.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

If you have any of the symptoms below, you could be having a heart attack. If symptoms are severe, get worse, or last longer than 10 minutes, call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance. If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile, try calling 112.

The most common symptoms of a heart attack are:

Chest pain may come and go.

Heart attack symptoms in females

Females may experience different symptoms, such as:

  • breathlessness and generally feeling unwell
  • tightness or discomfort in your arms
  • chest pain that feels more like burning, throbbing, tightness or like trapped wind
  • a feeling of indigestion or upper tummy pain
  • upper back pain or pressure

Heart attack symptoms differ from person to person. Some people experience no warning signs before a heart attack. It’s possible to not feel any chest pain at all.

CHECK YOUR SYMPTOMS — Use the Symptom Checker and find out if you need to seek medical help.

What causes heart attacks?

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary artery disease. This is where fatty deposits, cholesterol and other substances build up in the walls of your coronary arteries that supply oxygen to your heart.

Over time, this build-up hardens into cholesterol plaques. The plaque can rupture (burst) and cause a blood clot which blocks your artery.

In some cases, heart attacks have another cause.

  • Coronary artery spasm (variant angina) is an unusual narrowing of blood vessels that can stop blood flow to your heart.
  • Spontaneous coronary artery dissection is a sudden tear in the wall of your coronary artery.

Certain lifestyle factors are shown to increase your chances of having a heart attack. These include:

When should I see my doctor?

Call triple zero (000) immediately and ask for an ambulance, if you or someone near you experiences symptoms of a heart attack that are:

  1. severe
  2. getting worse, or
  3. lasting longer than 10 minutes

If calling triple zero (000) does not work on your mobile, try calling 112. Early treatment could save a life.

See your doctor regularly to manage your health. Your doctor can test for heart disease risk factors and help you take steps to prevent a heart attack.

FIND A HEALTH SERVICE — The Service Finder can help you find doctors, pharmacies, hospitals and other health services.

How are heart attacks diagnosed?

If you think you might be having a heart attack, you need immediate assessment in hospital. There, a doctor will assess your symptoms and check your vital signs, including your blood pressure, pulse and temperature.

There are several tests that help show if you’ve had a heart attack, and whether any damage was caused. These include:

  • electrocardiogram (ECG) — electrical leads are placed on your chest, arms and legs to record the electrical signals travelling through your heart muscle
  • troponin blood tests
  • chest x-ray
  • angiography (or, cardiac catheterisation) — a small tube (catheter) is inserted into an artery in your groin or your wrist, which can then be guided to your heart where a special dye is injected into the coronary arteries to show if there is a narrowing or blockage
  • echocardiogram — an ultrasound scan of your heart
  • CT scan or MRI scan of the heart

How are heart attacks treated?

When treating a heart attack it is important to restore blood flow to your heart quickly. Heart muscle cells depend on oxygen and the longer your heart is without oxygen, the more permanent and widespread the damage.

Treating the blocked artery

Treatments that can restore blood flow to your heart include the following.

  • Coronary angioplasty is a procedure where the blocked coronary artery is opened up from the inside using a special balloon inserted during cardiac catheterisation. Your artery may then be kept open with a special metal tube (stent).
  • Thrombolytic therapy uses a medicine to dissolve the blood clot in your blocked coronary artery.
  • Bypass surgery (coronary artery bypass graft surgery, or CABG) is open heart surgery that involves redirecting blood to bypass (go around) the blockage in your coronary artery.


Medicines are given to treat a heart attack and prevent the risk of another heart attack. These include:

Cardiac rehabilitation

If you are recovering from a heart attack you may be referred for cardiac rehabilitation. This service provides support during your recovery and helps reduce your risk of heart disease.

ASK YOUR DOCTOR — Preparing for an appointment? Use the Question Builder for general tips on what to ask your GP or specialist.

How can I prevent a heart attack?

Making positive lifestyle changes is the best way to lower your risk of a heart attack.

There are a number of ways you can improve your heart health:

There are also other risk factors that you can’t control, like your: age, sex, ethnicity and family history.

Speak with your doctor if you’re concerned about your risk factors. They can give you tips on how you can reduce your risk of a heart attack.

ARE YOU AT RISK? — Are you at risk of type 2 diabetes, heart disease or kidney disease? Use the Risk Checker to find out.

NEED TO LOSE WEIGHT? — Use the BMI Calculator to find out if your weight and waist size are in a healthy range.

Complications of a heart attack

Complications following a heart attack can be serious. Some complications include the following:

  • Arrhythmias — your heart may develop an abnormal heartbeat following a heart attack due to your damaged heart muscle disrupting electrical signals.
  • Heart failure — your heart may have difficulty pumping enough blood, due to the muscles being too weak or too stiff.
  • Cardiogenic shock — a life-threatening condition where your heart suddenly can’t pump enough blood to your body.
  • Heart rupture — this is a rare but serious complication in which your heart’s muscles, walls or valves split apart.

Is a cardiac arrest the same thing as a heart attack?

A cardiac arrest and a heart attack are both medical emergencies. However, they are not the same thing.

During a cardiac arrest, the electrical system that controls your heart rate and rhythm stops working properly, and your heart stops beating.

Someone having a cardiac arrest will collapse and have no pulse. They may not breathe properly, or not at all, and they will lose consciousness.

If someone has a cardiac arrest, they need help immediately. Call 000 (triple zero) for an ambulance.

While waiting for the ambulance to arrive, begin chest compressions (cardiopulmonary resuscitation or CPR). Use a device called a defibrillator, if available.

Sometimes a heart attack can progress into a cardiac arrest.

Does COVID-19 cause heart attacks?

A heart attack is a possible complication of COVID-19. COVID-19 can also worsen existing heart conditions.

When people with cardiovascular disease catch COVID-19, they have a higher risk of severe complications.

Get vaccinated against COVID-19 and the flu to help protect yourself and others.

The Heart Foundation has more information about COVID-19 and heart disease.

Life after a heart attack

Recovering from a heart attack can be both emotionally and physically challenging. Hearing stories from others who have experienced a heart attack can help.

The Heart Foundation have shared several people’s "heart stories" on their website.

Resources and support

Support and information on heart attack and heart health are also available from the Heart Foundation.

The Heart Foundation has a warning signs of heart attack action plan. There are instructions on what to do if you have chest pain or other possible signs of a heart attack.

You can also call the healthdirect helpline on 1800 022 222 (known as NURSE-ON-CALL in Victoria). A registered nurse is available to speak with 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

Other languages

Do you prefer to read languages other than English? The Heart Foundation has fact sheets on heart health translated into more than 25 languages.

Learn more here about the development and quality assurance of healthdirect content.

Last reviewed: November 2022

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