I am
Show me:
Show me:
What is a heart attack?
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

What is a heart attack?

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease.

Key takeaways

  • A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery, which supplies blood to your heart, becomes blocked. 
  • The most common sign of a heart attack is chest discomfort or pain, which can spread to your arms, neck, jaw or back. 
  • Chest discomfort or pain can last for several minutes or come and go. 
  • A heart attack requires emergency treatment to restore blood flow to your heart. 
  • Always call Triple Zero (000) immediately if you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack. 
5 min read
The heart is a muscular pump that’s a little larger than your fist. It’s one of your most important muscles as it pumps blood all over your body through the circulatory system. 

Your blood carries oxygen, which is needed by every cell in your body, all the time. Your heart pumps oxygen-rich blood from the lungs to the heart, and then on to the rest of the body.

What is a heart attack? 




For your heart to function properly, it needs a good blood supply. A heart attack occurs when a coronary artery, which supplies blood to your heart, becomes blocked. This stops the blood flow and reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your heart muscle. This causes the most common heart attack symptoms, which are chest discomfort or pain and can spread to your arms, neck, jaw or back. Unlike angina this discomfort often last for longer than 10 minutes

Your heart can be damaged by interrupted blood flow caused by a heart attack. The longer the blockage is left untreated the more the damage occurs. Without urgent treatment to restore the blood flow, the damage can be permanent. 

A heart attack can be fatal. Each day, an average of 21 Australians die from a heart attack. One patient is admitted to an Australian hospital with a heart attack every nine minutes.  

If you, or someone you know, is experiencing heart attack symptoms for greater than 10 minutes of rest, or if symptoms are severe, or they are getting worse, call Triple Zero (000) immediately. 

A heart attack can also be called a myocardial infarction (MI).

What causes a heart attack? 

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease. This occurs when the coronary artery, which supplies blood to your heart, narrows because of a build-up of plaque. Plaque is made of fat, cholesterol and other materials. The narrowed artery causes a reduced amount of blood flow to your heart muscle.  

During a heart attack, plaque from the artery wall breaks away (ruptures) and can form a clot. This can block the flow of blood through the artery and cause damage to the heart muscle. 

Other causes of heart attack besides blockage 

Not all heart attacks are caused by coronary heart disease and plaque rupture. 

Some heart attacks are caused when a coronary artery contracts (spasms) and narrows. Like coronary heart disease, this also reduces or stops blood flow reaching your heart. If an artery has a severe spasm, it can cause a heart attack.  

A heart attack can also be caused by the tearing of the coronary artery wall (spontaneous coronary artery dissection). 

What is the difference between heart attack and cardiac arrest? 

Heart attack 

A heart attack occurs when an artery supplying blood to your heart becomes blocked, which stops blood flow and reduces the amount of oxygen that gets to your heart.  

A person having a heart attack is usually conscious and may be complaining of chest discomfort or pain or other symptoms.  

Cardiac arrest  

A cardiac arrest occurs when your heart stops beating due to an electrical malfunction.  

A person in cardiac arrest will be unconscious (not able to respond) and will not be breathing. This is because their heart has suddenly stopped beating and blood can no longer flow to the brain, heart and lungs.  

A cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. If the heart is not restarted immediately, cardiac arrest can lead to brain damage and then death. Every second counts. If you witness a cardiac arrest call Triple Zero (000) immediately. Giving chest compressions and using a defibrillator (AED) can improve a person’s chances of survival.

Heart attack warning signs and symptoms  

Recognising the symptoms of a heart attack and calling Triple Zero (000) could save your life or the life of a loved one. It’s important that everyone, both male and female, know the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack, because early treatment is vital. The longer a blockage is left untreated, the more damage occurs.        

The most common heart attack warning signs are:  

  • Chest discomfort or pain (angina). This can feel like uncomfortable pressure, aching, numbness, squeezing, fullness or pain in your chest. This discomfort can spread to your arms, neck, jaw or back. It can last for several minutes or come and go 
  • Dizziness, light-headedness, feeling faint or feeling anxious 
  • Nausea, indigestion, vomiting 
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing – with or without chest discomfort 
  • Sweating or a cold sweat.    

Download our heart attack warning signs action plan

How do you know if you’re having a heart attack and not something less serious?

Heart attack symptoms can be different for each person. No two heart attacks are the same, even for the same person. You may have just one, or a combination of symptoms. Sometimes the symptoms of a heart attack are not the classic ‘crushing chest pain’ you may expect. 

You may feel less obvious symptoms, such as a burning feeling in your chest and shortness of breath. Sometimes you may have no ‘warning sign symptoms’ at all. In fact, your doctor may even discover that you have had a silent heart attack. 

A heart attack can only be diagnosed by medical tests. The only way to know what you’re experiencing is to seek urgent help. At worst, you may have something less serious. At best, you will receive the treatment that you need.  

Do not ignore the warning signs of a heart attack. Every minute counts. Download our heart attack action plan. 

If you’re experiencing the warning signs of a heart attack or are worried you or someone you know is having a heart attack – tell someone. If symptoms are severe, or getting worse, or last for more than 10 minutes, call Triple Zero (000) immediately.  

How can you reduce your risk of having a heart attack?  

Knowing your risk of coronary heart disease is the first step to reducing your risk of having a heart attack. Yet many people don’t know that they are at risk. More than two thirds of Australian adults, or 12 million people, have three or more heart attack risk factors1

The best way to find out your risk of having a heart attack is to see your GP for a heart health check if you are over the age of 45 (or 30 for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people). 

You can reduce your risk by making positive changes to your lifestyle with the help of your doctor. 

How is a heart attack diagnosed? 

A heart attack is a medical emergency. If you’re experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack, call Triple Zero (000) and ask for an ambulance. An ambulance is the safest way to go to hospital and the quickest way to seek treatment. Treatment can start when ambulance staff arrive, saving precious minutes and preventing damage to your heart muscle. 

Once you get to hospital, your doctor will perform tests to diagnose if you’re having a heart attack.  

These tests will also measure the amount of damage caused to your heart and the best treatment course to take.

These tests include: 

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) 
  • Blood tests 
  • Coronary catheterisation (angiogram) 

How is a heart attack treated? 

A heart attack requires emergency treatment to restore blood flow to your heart. The faster this happens, the less the heart muscle is damaged. Heart attack treatments may involve medications or surgery. 

You might also be interested in

Daniel's cardiac arrest helped him discover another problem

Daniel's cardiac arrest helped him discover another problem

Daniel's cardiac arrest helped him discover another problem

Dan was six minutes into his treadmill session when his heart stopped beating....

What is angina?

What is angina?

What is angina?

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that’s a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary heart disease (CHD)....

Get heart attack recovery emails

Get heart attack recovery emails

Get heart attack recovery emails

The Heart Foundation has designed a series of emails to help people who've had heart attacks (and their loved ones) through their recovery....

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Understand blood pressure and how it can impact your heart health....

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Driving and travelling after a heart attack

Explore our guide for driving and heart attack recovery. ...

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Emma shares her story and opens up about her emotional struggles....

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia where your heart beats irregularly and fast....

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Confidential. Personal. Reliable.

Got a question about your heart?...

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Keeping your blood cholesterol at a healthy level can help you reduce your risk of heart disease and other serious conditions. ...

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

This is a guide to how you might be feeling after a heart attack. ...

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

Gerry had heart attack warning signs on his dream holiday.

I’d always thought of myself as fairly fit; I swam a lot, and did ‘soft running’, a combination of running and walking. ...

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

With immediate help a cardiac arrest can be survived. Learn how to save a life....

Heart health information in your language

Heart health information in your language

A selection of heart health information brochures in a range languages...

Heart attack medication

Heart attack medication

Heart attack medication

There are a number of medications you could be prescribed after a heart attack....

Meditation helped Grant recover from his heart attack

Meditation helped Grant recover from his heart attack

Meditation helped Grant recover from his heart attack

Thankfully for Grant Byrne, a lifelong Led Zeppelin fan, some quick thinking helped him avoid a stairway to heaven. Read Grant’s heart attack story now. ...

What is coronary heart disease?

What is coronary heart disease?

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease occurs when a coronary artery clogs and narrows because of a buildup of plaque....

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Heart attack recovery – your first month

Explore the Heart Foundation’s guide on what to expect in the first month after your heart attack. ...

Heart attack at 35: Knowing the signs and symptoms

Heart attack at 35: Knowing the signs and symptoms

Heart attack at 35: Knowing the signs and symptoms

David reflects on how his life changed when he had a heart attack at 35 and how he got back on track....

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

Arrhythmia is a fault in the heart’s electrical system, which affects your heart’s pumping rhythm....

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. Get the facts on quitting and how it can help you recover. ...

I’m a mum and I survived a heart attack

I’m a mum and I survived a heart attack

I’m a mum and I survived a heart attack

Nicola, mum of 2, shares her heart attack recovery story....

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Like men, women can be diagnosed with a range of heart conditions....

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation programs and resources to support your recovery....

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

After having five open heart surgeries between the ages of 13 and 41, Peter knows a thing or two about recovery....

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Pregnancy is often referred to as the “ultimate stress test” for the body....

Relationships and sex after a heart attack

Relationships and sex after a heart attack

Relationships and sex after a heart attack

Explore some useful things to know about intimacy after a heart attack....

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm didn’t worry too much about his cholesterol problem – until an angiogram revealed he had an 80 per cent blockage in a major heart artery. ...

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition where your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should be....

Support after a heart attack

Support after a heart attack

Support after a heart attack

Many different thoughts may go through your head after a heart attack and you may be presented with complicated medical info. Know where to get support. ...

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy, Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack. However, after experiencing a ‘widow maker’, she counts herself lucky....

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease means that your heart valve or valves don't open or close properly....

When The Heart Gets Heavy: Emotional Wellbeing and Heart Conditions

When The Heart Gets Heavy: Emotional Wellbeing and Heart Conditions

Emotional wellbeing is like having a garden, sometimes it grows green on its own, other times it needs watering, cutting back or fertilising....

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is the broad term for conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart muscle. ...

Support and resources for health care professionals

Support and resources for health care professionals

Support and resources for health care professionals

Our range of clinical and patient support resources are available for you to use in your daily practice....

Clinical Guidelines

Clinical Guidelines

Clinical Guidelines

Full list of clinical guidlines and references for CVD, heart failure, ACS, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, SCAD and RHD...

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Join the Heart Foundation community. Together, we can make a real difference for Australian hearts. ...

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation programs and resources to support your recovery....

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Join the fight against Australia’s biggest killer by supporting the Heart Foundation.  ...

Heart Age Calculator

Heart Age Calculator

Heart Age Calculator

Try our Heart Age Calculator to understand what contributes to your risk of heart disease....

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

There is no single cause for any one heart condition, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing one. ...

Australian Heart Maps

Australian Heart Maps

Australian Heart Maps

Our Heart Maps allow you to take a closer look at heart disease indicators across Australia....

Get your family moving

Get your family moving

Get your family moving

Get your kids active and set them up for healthier habits into adulthood....

Pregnancy and heart disease

Pregnancy and heart disease

Information and resources for health professionals....

10 ways to get the right balance of fats 

10 ways to get the right balance of fats 

10 ways to get the right balance of fats 

Getting the right balance of fats in your diet can improve your heart health....

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Visit the St Vincents Hospital NSW and Heart Foundation Aboriginal heart health website for more information...

About the Lighthouse Hospital Project

About the Lighthouse Hospital Project

Heart disease is the number one cause of death in Australia, but the burden of disease disproportionately affects Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples....

Heart procedures and devices

Heart procedures and devices

Heart procedures and devices

If you have a heart condition, your doctor may recommend treatment or procedures...

Reading food labels

Reading food labels

Reading food labels

Nutrition information panels and ingredients lists are a good way of comparing similar foods so you can choose the healthiest option....

Encouraging cardiovascular research excellence in South Australia

Encouraging cardiovascular research excellence in South Australia

Encouraging cardiovascular research excellence in South Australia

Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’

Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’

Cardiac arrest at 26: adjusting to a new ‘normal’

Mental health and heart disease

Mental health and heart disease

Mental health and heart disease

Having a mental health condition can have a negative impact on your heart health and increase your risk of heart disease....

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy, Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack. However, after experiencing a ‘widow maker’, she counts herself lucky....

Absolute CVD risk assessment practical update webinar

Absolute CVD risk assessment practical update webinar

A multidisciplinary panel of experts discuss the practical application of absolute CVD risk assessment through Heart Health Checks....

Key Statistics: Heart attack

Key Statistics: Heart attack

Key Statistics: Risk factors for heart disease

Key Statistics: Risk factors for heart disease

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts from the Heart

Gifts that give back....

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

Feelings and emotions after a heart attack

This is a guide to how you might be feeling after a heart attack. ...

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm discovered he was at risk of a major heart attack just in the nick of time

Norm didn’t worry too much about his cholesterol problem – until an angiogram revealed he had an 80 per cent blockage in a major heart artery. ...

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Italian recipes

Find heart healthy Italian recipes....

Heart health information in your language

Heart health information in your language

A selection of heart health information brochures in a range languages...

Key Statistics: Heart Failure

Key Statistics: Heart Failure

Snack recipes

Snack recipes

Snack recipes

Search for healthy snack ideas...

Donate to the Heart Foundation

Donate to the Heart Foundation

Donate to the Heart Foundation

Every dollar that you donate will help fund research, support and programs that help save lives....