St John Ambulance Brigade of Ireland

Southern Command


First Aid Recognition - The Key to Survival! Print E-mail

Man having a Heart AttackStroke, Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest are life-and-death medical emergencies. Survival often depends on quickly recognising the symptoms and activating the emergency medical services (9-9-9 in Ireland, 9-1-1 in the US, or 1-1-2 in Europe).

If you are at a large public event or in a large public building, look around to find a steward, security guard, police officer or ambulance member. There may be medical cover on site. If you can't see anybody in your proximity, call the emergency services and be as descriptive as possible about your location. If there is onsite medical cover, the operator will usually have a way of contacting the  medical team to make them aware of your situation.

The seconds gained in immediately activating the emergency medical services can save a life.

Though there are common symptoms with each medical emergency, a casualty may only experience some of them, or indeed may not experience any. Never hesitate if you are suspicious that you or someone else may need medical attention. Mild embarrassment pales in insignificance when compared to loss of life. The drugs and treatments for all life threatening conditions are constantly evolving and the survival rates constantly rise. However, all of this is still dependent on getting medical personnel to the victim quickly - If in doubt, activate the emergency services immediately!!

Mini Stroke and Stroke:

There are two types of strokes. A mini stroke is when a blood clot or other debris clogs an artery for a short period of time. A stroke is when a blood vessel is permanently blocked or ruptures and bleeds, either of which prevent blood flow to brain tissue. 

What to watch for1:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body.
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding. (Casualties are often mistaken as being drunk) 
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes.
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination.
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause.

Risk Factors3:

  • Obesity, smoking, diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol and heart disease.

There are now drugs that can limit the long term effects of stroke especially if they are administered within the first 3 hours. Time is critical, so if you recognise any of these symptoms, call for an ambulance immediately.

Heart Attack:

A Heart Attack is caused by the sudden loss or restriction of blood flow to a part of the heart.

What to watch for1:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.   
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.   
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.  
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, dizzyness or lightheadedness, or collapse.  

As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain

Cardiac Arrest:

Cardiac arrest is an abrupt cessation of pump function of the heart that with prompt intervention could be reversed, but without it will lead to death2.

What to watch for1:

  • Sudden loss of responsiveness (no response to tapping on shoulders).
  • No normal breathing (the victim does not take a normal breath when you tilt the head up and check for at least five seconds).

If these signs of cardiac arrest are present, tell someone to call for an ambulance and get an AED (if one is available) and you begin CPR immediately.  

If you are alone with the casualty, always call for an ambulance and get an AED (if you are trained to use one) before commencing CPR.

For CPR and AED training, please click here to get information on upcoming courses.


  1. Heart Attack, Stroke and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs. American Heart Association (

  2. Harrison's Principles of Internal Medicine 16th Edition, The McGraw-Hill Companies, ISBN 0-07-140235-7

  3. Stroke Information. American Stroke Association. (