Too much turkey... or a heart attack? How to deal with a medical emergency during the festive season


You're unlikely to have problems spotting a serious asthma or heart attack and stroke, particularly when you or the affected person develop symptoms quickly and are very unwell.

Most people who are seriously ill look seriously ill and so when you're concerned that you or someone else is suffering from an acute and severe illness speak to your GP immediately or call for an ambulance. But in many cases, events may not appear quite as dramatic. 

Man being rushed to operating theatre

The main danger of a heart attack is that your heart may stop beating, and so you need to treat a possible heart attack as an emergency

For example, asthma can get worse gradually and an asthma attack can sometimes look less severe than it actually is. Heart attacks and strokes may also present in quite a subtle way at times.

Spotting the warning symptoms and signs early allows you to get help quickly when appropriate.


If the blood supply to your brain gets interrupted, you suffer a stroke. It may be more apparent to those around you that you are suffering. If blood cannot reach certain areas of your brain, the affected brain cells behind the blockage can die and parts of your brain don't function properly afterwards.

The two main types of stroke are ischaemic stroke, where a clot narrows or blocks a blood vessel in your brain, and a hemorrhagic stroke, when a blood vessel in your brain bursts causing bleeding into your brain.

A mini-stroke (also known as a transient ischaemic attack or TIA) is very similar to a stroke but does improve by itself within 24 hours.

Sometimes a TIA can be a warning sign that a more serious stroke may be imminent, which is why you need to take it as seriously as a stroke

You are at higher risk of suffering a stroke if you have underlying health conditions such as diabetes, high blood pressure, raised cholesterol-and an irregular heartbeat known as atrial fibrillation, or if strokes run in your family.

Your lifestyle may also contribute, if you smoke, are obese, or inactive, have a poor diet or drink too much alcohol.

You can recognise a stroke by any of the following features which may appear alone or in combination:

  • The face has fallen to one side and is unable to smile properly. It may look contorted.
  • One arm is noticeably weaker than the other and the arms cannot be lifted and held out in front.
  • The legs are weak and cannot move properly.
  • Speech is slurred.
  • Sight is lost in one eye, partially or completely. If you suspect someone has had a stroke, call for an ambulance. The sooner you call for help, the better the chance of a good recovery.


In a heart attack, the blood vessels supplying your heart suddenly become blocked and your heart muscle doesn't get enough oxygen. The result is usually chest pain.

The main danger of a heart attack is that your heart may stop beating, and so you need to treat a possible heart attack as an emergency, even if you still feel relatively well.

Heart attacks aren't always easy to spot but call for an ambulance if you recognise one or more of the following typical symptoms which can occur alone or in any combination.

  • You experience persistent, central chest pain that feels like a tightness or heavy pressure or like someone sitting on your chest.
  • You have a pain that spreads to your neck, jaw or down one or both of your arms. Sometimes the pain also spreads to your back or you feel it in your upper abdomen rather than in your chest (a bit like indigestion).
  • You have pain and in addition feel breathless, nauseous and sweaty, and your skin feels cold to touch. You may even be gasping for breath or vomit.
  • You have chest pain and collapse without much warning.
  • You develop a pale appearance or blue lips.
  • You have chest pain and notice that your heart is suddenly beating unusually fast and your pulse may be irregular. However, if you suffer from pre-existing conditions such as anxiety, a fast heart rate may be normal for you.


Shock is a serious medical condition. It means that not enough blood is pumping through your body and your vital organs, such as your brain or your heart, do not get enough oxygen. In more severe shock, people become aggressive, restless and gasp for air. Eventually they become drowsy and lose consciousness.

Finally, the heart stops beating. The skin may become clammy, cold and pale. If shock is severe the lips may appear blue and skin can appear grey or blue in colour. You may also notice excessive sweating. Important causes of shock are:

  • Burns: Severe burns can cause shock when fluid evaporates from wounds.
  • Heart problems: Suffering from an acute heart problem such as a heart attack can cause shock.
  • Losing blood: You can develop shock if you lose large amounts of blood due to an injury.
  • Losing fluid: People lose too much fluid due to excessive sweating, severe vomiting or diarrhoea.
  • Poisoning: Various poisons can lead to severe problems with your circulation and can also cause shock.


  • Make sure you are as comfortable as possible and are not exerting-yourself. Sit down in the 'W' position with your back at about 75 degrees to the ground, with your knees bent if possible, while resting your back against the headboard of a bed or wall (supported by a pillow). Your heart finds pumping blood easier in this position.
  • Take your medication. If you have aspirin at home and can't think of a reason why you shouldn't take it and assuming you are over 16 then take one 300 milligram tablet straight away If you have medication for angina also use these immediately.

Diagnosing Your Health Symptoms For Dummies, by Knut Schroeder, is published by Wiley, £16.99.

My 11-year-old son is the light of my life 


Brad Ames with his 11-year-old son Ashley

Brad Ames slipped on an icy tile (above with his 11-year-old son Ashley)

Reaching to take down the final Christmas light from the roof of the family home last January, Brad Ames slipped on an icy tile, flying backwards on to the drive below.

'I'm still haunted by the feeling of falling as if in slow motion. I thought I was going to die,' says the 42-year-old engineering manager from Chellaston, Derbyshire.

'I landed on my left side  -  on the back of my head, shoulder and elbow.'

Brad's wife Tanya, 35, had been standing at the bottom of the ladder. She says: 'When I saw Brad falling, I felt so helpless. I thought he'd die  -  or be paralysed at the very least.

'I'm normally pretty calm but this was so terrible my mind was in a whirl.'

But, hearing his dad screaming in pain, their 11-year-old son Ashley  -  who had been playing across the road with his sister Hannah, ten  -  came running over and took control.

A St John Ambulance cadet, Ashley knew that as his father's breathing was noisy, fluid such as blood or saliva could be at the back of his throat.

Putting his dad in the recovery position  -  tilting the head up slightly to help clear the airways  -  Ashley also made sure that Brad's tongue was not blocking the air passage. He then rushed to fetch blankets to put over his father to prevent hypothermia or shock, as it was very cold.

As they waited for the paramedics, Ashley ran between his dad and his shocked sister checking they were both OK. When the ambulance arrived, the paramedics strapped Brad to a spinal board as a precaution.

A CT scan showed he had sustained several cracked ribs and a smashed radial head (the bone surrounding the elbow joint). Fortunately, his head, shoulder and back were undamaged, apart from plenty of bruising.

Ashley was praised by the paramedics for his quick-witted actions. He says: 'I'm glad I could help. It was nice to be told I'd saved the day. It has made me want to be a paramedic as it must be very satisfying to help people in this way.

'This year our house is the only one in the street with no lights on it. Dad has been banned from putting them up  -  for ever.'

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