Administering timely first aid to someone having a heart attack may help increase their chances of survival.

The most effective first aid for a heart attack depends on whether the person is conscious and breathing and whether they have prescription medication for a heart condition.

This article explains the steps to provide first aid for a heart attack. It also outlines how and when to perform CPR and the signs and symptoms of a heart attack.

A paramedic in an ambulanceShare on Pinterest
Maskot/Getty Images

The first thing to do if a person believes someone is having a heart attack is to call 911 immediately.

While one person calls 911, someone else can administer first aid while waiting for the ambulance to arrive.

This reduces the wait time for emergency responders and gives the person experiencing the heart attack the best chance of recovery. Additionally, the 911 responder may offer recommendations on what to do next.

If it is safe to do so, a person may try moving the person having a heart attack into a more comfortable position.

According to the United Kingdom’s St. John Ambulance, the best position for someone experiencing a heart attack is sitting down on the floor with knees bent and leaning up against a wall.

This position can help ease the strain on a person’s heart and reduces the possibility of someone injuring themselves during a fall if they collapse as a result of the heart attack.

If a person has an existing heart condition, such as angina, they may have prescription nitrate medication, including nitroglycerin. Administering the medication can help with symptoms until emergency personnel arrive.

The 911 operator may recommend giving the person aspirin if they do not have a nitrate prescription or do not have the medication on hand. People should avoid giving a person aspirin if they have an allergy to it or if they are younger than 16 years old.

A 2020 review suggests that taking aspirin early or before hospitalization may improve survival rates. However, more research is necessary to conclusively prove this link.

If the person having a heart attack loses their pulse or becomes unresponsive, the person administering first aid can begin CPR to help restore the heartbeat.

Before beginning CPR, the person should ensure the scene is safe and should check the unresponsive individual for any bleeding or injuries, which may make it unsafe to perform CPR.

To perform CPR:

  • Find the best spot to compress — the center of the chest between the nipples.
  • Place one hand over the other and push hard and fast.
  • Interlock the fingers, placing the base or heel of the hands in the center of the chest on the sternum.
  • With the shoulders over the hands and elbows locked, press hard and fast to a depth of 2 inches, aiming for 100–120 compressions per minute.
  • Continue to perform this movement until they recover consciousness and start to move, someone else can take over, or the person performing CPR cannot continue any longer.
  • If possible, try to have multiple people take turns without pausing the compressions.

See a visual guide on how to properly perform CPR here.

An automatic external defibrillator (AED) is an electronic device that can restart a person’s heartbeat using pulses of electric energy to shock the heart and restore its natural rhythm.

Many public places, such as shopping malls, sports stadiums, medical offices, and train or bus stations, now have AEDs for people to use in emergencies.

As soon as a person turns on an AED, the machine will provide automated step-by-step voice guidance to help them operate it.

After discharging the AED, return to performing CPR as before.

If administering first aid to someone experiencing a heart attack, a person should avoid:

  • leaving the person alone, unless it is absolutely necessary to do so to get help
  • ignoring heart attack symptoms
  • waiting to see if the symptoms go away on their own
  • giving the person anything to eat or drink aside from prescription heart medications or aspirin

The most common signs of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain: Most heart attacks involve pain at the center of the chest that disappears before returning or lasts more than several minutes. The pain may feel like pressure, squeezing, or a tightness of the chest.
  • Pain or discomfort in other places on the upper body: The sensation may show up in one or both arms, the abdomen, back, neck, or jaw.
  • Shortness of breath: Shortness of breath may occur with or without chest pain or discomfort.
  • Other signs: Other possible heart attack symptoms include cold sweats, nausea, or a feeling of lightheadedness.

Learn more about the signs of a heart attack here.

In females

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

Was this helpful?

In females, heart attack symptoms may be different than in males.

Common female heart attack symptoms include:

  • weakness that occurs suddenly
  • extreme shortness of breath
  • digestive issues, such as indigestion or nausea
  • aches or pains all over the body
  • a general feeling of malaise
  • discomfort or pain in the back or torso

Common questions about heart attack first aid include:

What to do if you are alone and have a heart attack?

If a person thinks they are experiencing a heart attack while alone, they should:

  • call 911 and avoid driving to the emergency room
  • phone a friend or family member and ask them to come help
  • take their prescription nitroglycerin, if available
  • crush or chew the nitroglycerin to help speed up absorption, and if it does not help within 5 minutes, take aspirin, if appropriate
  • unlock the front door to allow emergency personnel easy access
  • sit down propped against the wall or in another stable position
  • keep warm and try to remain as calm as possible until help arrives

What is the appropriate position for heart attack first aid?

If the person is conscious, they should sit on the floor and propped against a chair or wall. For CPR, the person should be lying down, face up.

Cardiovascular health resources

Visit our dedicated hub for more research-backed information and in-depth resources on cardiovascular health.

Was this helpful?

Prompt heart attack first aid can help save a life.

It is vital to call 911 before administering first aid. If more than one person is present, one person can begin administering first aid while another calls for emergency services.