Page last updated at 23:38 GMT, Tuesday, 8 September 2009 00:38 UK

Women's 999 delay 'risks lives'


Claire Jackson-Prior, an otherwise healthy woman, had a heart attack at 35

Women's reluctance to seek help when they may be having a heart attack could be costing lives, a survey suggests.

One in three women mistakenly thought a heart attack must be accompanied by very severe chest pains, the British Heart Foundation (BHF) poll found.

A similar number admitted they would avoid calling 999 if they had unusual chest pains.

They said fear of being embarrassed if their condition turned out to be trivial would put them off phoning.

However, experts warn it is vital to seek help without delay at the first sign of a possible heart attack.

A previous study found women put off dialling 999 for an average of 24 minutes longer than men after first experiencing heart attack symptoms - dramatically cutting their changes of survival.

There is no need to feel embarrassed about getting it wrong - saving your life is more important than saving face
Dr Mike Knapton
British Health Foundation

And the latest poll, of 2,236 adults, suggests that attempts to raise awareness among women have not been successful.

According to the BHF, approximately 140 men and 110 women die every day in the UK from heart attacks.

Of these, a third die before reaching hospital - often because they delayed seeking medical help.

A heart attack occurs when a blood clot blocks blood flow to the heart muscle.

Paramedics can take action to stabilise the situation, buying time for doctors to restore blood supply to the heart.

But the longer the heart muscle is starved of oxygen, the greater the permanent damage to the heart muscle.

People who are treated within two hours of the onset of symptoms are twice as likely to survive as those who are not treated within four hours.

Every second counts

Dr Mike Knapton, BHF Associate Medical Director, said: "Every second counts when you are having a heart attack and calling 999 at the very first sign means you are much more likely to survive.

A dull pain, ache or 'heavy' feeling in the chest
A mild discomfort in the chest that makes you feel generally unwell
Chest pain that spreads to the back or stomach
Chest pain that feels like a bad episode of indigestion
Chest pain accompanied by feeling light-headed or dizzy

"There is no need to feel embarrassed about getting it wrong - saving your life is more important than saving face."

The most common symptom of a heart attack is a pain in the centre of the chest which is often accompanied by a feeling of nausea and/or feeling short of breath, and may spread to the arms, neck and jaw.

However, symptoms can vary from person to person, and women in particular are likely to experience "unusual" symptoms (see box).

Claire Jackson-Prior, 36, from Surrey, had a heart attack last year but did not phone for help straight away, despite feeling hot and shaky, and having a tightness across her chest.

She said: "Though I felt ill, I wasn't in agony. I knew something wasn't right but I didn't want to make a fuss and call 999.

"I thought I would be embarrassed if it turned out to just be a panic attack or something like that."

Instead, Claire called NHS Direct, and an ambulance was immediately sent to her house.

"I was shocked that I'd had a heart attack," she said.

"It wasn't how I imagined one to be, and as a young woman I didn't think it would be the kind of thing that would happen to me."

Peter Bradley, chief executive of London Ambulance Service, said his team often came across people who had wasted valuable time before seeking help.

He said: "Ringing the emergency services as soon as you experience these symptoms should be your first call to action."

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