Common Cardiovascular Emergencies

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Cardiovascular emergencies are severe life – threatening conditions that need to be swiftly identified and cared for in order to reduce the chances of irreversible damage and death. The two most common pathologic cardiac emergencies involving the cardiovascular system that can potentially incapacitate if not possibly kill an individual are heart attacks and stroke.

With adequate First Aid Training, people can equip themselves with the basic yet very vital skills and knowledge in identifying cardiovascular threats and how to give emergency care to suspected victims. Although, emergency care for cardiovascular conditions involves intermediate concepts in First Aid Courses, it shouldn’t be a hindrance to anyone to know the universal signs of heart attacks and strokes. Advance skills in managing patients with cardiovascular crisis usually require advance First Aid Certification which is normally intended for medical personnel.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack is a dangerous condition that affects the cardiovascular system wherein the heart muscle is deprived of rich supply of oxygen.  A reduction or a blockage of the coronary artery (the blood vessel that carries oxygen rich blood to the cardiac muscle for nourishment) is the main reason behind majority of heart attacks. If left untreated, the heart will eventually fail and cease to function (known as cardiac arrest).

Learn about First aid – Heart attack treatment with this short YouTube video clip

Recognizing a heart attack?

Upon the onset of an impending heart attack, it is important to immediately contact emergency medical care in order to reduce the chances of permanent damage and increase the quality of survival. The general signs people should watch out for in a heart attack are the following:

  1. Intense pain, pressure or squeezing of the chest that radiates towards the left arm that last for more than a few minutes and is not relieved by rest
  2. Pain spreading to the shoulders, arms, neck and jaw
  3. Shortness of breath and cold clammy sweat
  4. Nausea and dizziness

The majority of women surprisingly do not experience the classic signs of a heart attack which is chest pain. Instead, they complain more about severe fatigue, stomach cramps and shortness of breath while only a third of women report of severe chest pain. Although heart attacks are prevalent in both sexes, statistics reveal that women have a higher incidence of cardiac arrests than men.

Emergency care for a heart attack

  1. Immediately contact emergency services so that anti-clot medications can be given as early as possible.
  2. Assist the victim to a comfortable position with head elevated.
  3. If victim is awake and coherent, ask for his/her heart medications (aspirin and nitroglycerin) and help the victim take in the medications while waiting for emergency help to arrive.
  4. Continuously monitor for any change in sensory perception and breathing pattern.

What is a Stroke?

A stroke is also known as a brain attack which happens when blood flow supplying the brain is impeded or cut off primarily due to a blot clot that is lodged in the smaller arteries in the brain. Basically, the pathophysiology of heart attacks and stroke are very similar only that they occur in different locations in the body.

Recognizing Stroke

The signs and symptoms of stroke include:

  1. Sudden weakness and numbness of one side of the body particularly in the face , arm or leg
  2. Confusion and delirium
  3. Severe headache and blurring of vision
  4. Difficulty speaking and slurred speech

Emergency care for a stroke

To care for a stroke victim, the same principles apply for heart attacks with few modifications:

  1. Immediately call for emergency medical services.
  2. Have the victim assume a comfortable position head elevated 45 degrees.
  3. Assess for further changes in orientation
  4. If victim is unconscious or has vomited, position the victim in the recovery position.


Alton, T. et al (2012). First Aid, CPR and AED Standard 6th Ed. Jones & Bartlett Learning

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