This week our resident pharmacist, BOITUMELO NTSOANE, gives advice on heart attacks.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack is also called Myocardial Infarction (MI). A heart attack happens when blood supply to a part of the heart stops. When there is no blood supply to that part of the heart muscle, the heart muscle does not receive oxygen. Therefore, that part of the heart muscle begins to die. 

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack

Common signs and symptoms include:

  • Pain or discomfort in your chest or arms that may spread to your neck, jaw or back
  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Light-headedness/sudden dizziness.

It is important to remember that the symptoms of a heart attack differ from person to person, so not everybody experiences the same symptoms during a heart attack. Some people have a mild pain, others have a severe pain, while there are some who do not experience any symptoms at all (silent heart attack). 

Women can have different, less identifiable symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain. Older people, might also have slightly different symptoms, like disorientation and shortness of breath. 

The time period that these symptoms are experienced are also not the same. Some heart attacks can be sudden, but mostly heart attacks start slowly, hours or even days before. The earliest sign of a heart attack can be a recurring chest pain that is triggered by exertion and relieved by rest.

What do you do if you have a heart attack or see someone having a heart attack?

It is advised that you remember the signs and symptoms of a heart attack so that when it does occur, you do not waste time. Half of deaths due to a heart attack occur in the first 3 or 4 hours after symptoms begin. Hence, it is of utmost importance to act immediately, because the sooner you get treatment, the less the damage can be. Acting fast, can save lives.

It is also recommended that even if you are not sure if you are having a heart attack, you should seek medical help. If you are having a heart attack, call the medical emergency number or ambulance at once. If the doctor has given you nitroglycerin, you can take that. You can also take aspirin, but only if the doctor has told you that you can.

If you see somebody having a heart attack, you should also get emergency help immediately. 

Causes of heart attack 

Heart attacks occur, as alluded to earlier on, because of the lack of blood and oxygen supply to a part of the heart muscle. 

One cause of heart attacks is Coronary Heart Disease (CHD). Coronary Heart Disease occurs when plaque builds up inside the blood vessels that supply the blood to the heart. Eventually the plaque can break open and cause a blood clot. The blood clot can grow until it starts blocking blood supply to the heart. 

Another cause of heart attacks is spasms of the blood vessels. The spasms cause the blood vessel to tighten and lessen the amount of blood supply to the heart.

Who is more likely to get a heart attack? 

Some of the things that make you more likely to get a heart attack: 

  • Men aged 45 or older and women age 55 or older 
  • Smoking and long-term exposure to second-hand smoke
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol or triglyceride levels
  • Diabetes
  • Family history of heart attack
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Birth Control Pills
  • Obesity
  • Stress.

What you can do to prevent getting a heart attack 

An effective way of preventing heart attacks is changing your lifestyle to a healthier one, which includes: eating a low-fat diet, increasing the amount of exercise you get, avoiding smoking and alcohol.  People who have high blood pressure or diabetes should try to keep those disorders under control. 

In addition to that, see your doctor regularly and take your medications consistently for the best outcomes. 

What happens after you have a heart attack? 

What happens after you have a heart attack depends on your individual situation. You will stay in the hospital and receive treatment and be monitored until you are stable enough to be discharged. After the heart attack, the heart becomes weaker. The heart starts healing quickly after the heart attack by forming scar tissue in the damaged area. 

You will most likely recover from the heart attack.  But this can take anywhere from a few weeks to months. It differs for each person. There is always hope, because with proper care, proper lifestyle changes and treatment, further damage can be prevented and limited.


Boitumelo Ntsoane, a pharmacist by profession, the Managing Director of the Pretoria-based Onpoint Healthcare. She’s on