If your child is having sudden or severe chest pain, you’re probably wondering if he or she could be having a heart attack. If he or she has heart conditions or a family history of them, knowing what a heart attack is and how can be prevented can put your mind at rest if your child is having symptoms.
Although it’s extremely rare, it is possible for a 10-year-old to have a heart attack. Having tightness in the chest, sudden dizziness or lightheadedness, or a feeling of fatigue and general weakness can all be signs that your child is having a heart attack. Genetics, including family history, can increase your child’s risk for heart attack. It’s also possible your child was born with structural abnormalities in his or her heart or arteries.
While it isn’t common for a child to have a heart attack, certain medical conditions can make it more likely. Understanding more about heart attacks in children could be the key to saving your child’s life someday.
What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack happens when there isn’t enough oxygen-rich blood going to the heart because an artery is blocked. This causes part or all of the heart muscle to die.
If the heart attack continues without treatment, it can lead to cardiac arrest. During a heart attack, the heart is still beating – it just isn’t getting enough blood to pump throughout the body. But during cardiac arrest, the heart quivers erratically instead of beating properly, and even if there is some oxygenated blood getting to this vital organ, the heart can’t circulate it around the body.
Some heart attacks are brought on suddenly. But many times, some early warning signs will show themselves before your child has a true heart attack, sometimes hours or days before.
When you think of the words “heart attack,” the first thought that probably pops into your mind is chest pain. But there are several other symptoms your child might also be having if he or she is having a heart attack.
- Tightness in the chest
- Nausea or heartburn/indigestion
- Cold sweat
- Fatigue/general feeling of weakness
- Sudden dizziness
- Pain in nearby areas, like the arms, neck, jaw, or back
But just because your child is experiencing some of these symptoms doesn’t mean he or she is having a heart attack. And just because he or she isn’t experiencing all of these doesn’t mean everything’s fine. Some people might have all of these symptoms, while others might not have any until they go into cardiac arrest. But generally, the more of these symptoms your child is having, the more likely it is that he or she is having a heart attack.
But remember that it’s rare for a heart attack to come on suddenly. Your child might notice warning signs like angina, or chest pain, during exertion or exercise. This usually gets better during rest. Fainting during exercise is another red flag to look out for. These symptoms might happen as long as days or weeks before a heart attack.
No matter which of these symptoms your child is having, if you think he or she might be having a heart attack, you should call 911 immediately. The sooner you act, the less likely it is that your child’s heart will have lasting damage.
When you call 911, the operator may tell you to give your child aspirin while you wait for EMS to arrive. Aspirin reduces blood clotting, which may help more blood flow to your child’s heart.
When EMS arrive, they may give your child a range of other medications, like thrombolytics, blood thinners, or pain relivers. Thrombolytics work by dissolving the clot blocking the blood flow to your child’s heart, so the sooner your child gets this, the better. Blood thinners do just what they sound like – they make your child’s blood thinner so it’s less likely to clot.
A pain reliver might be necessary if your child is experiencing severe pain. One pain reliver your child may receive is nitroglycerin, which can simultaneously treat chest pain and make the blood vessels wider so more blood can flow to the heart.
If your child goes into cardiac arrest, every second counts. With each minute that passes after cardiac arrest and before circulation is restored, your child’s survival chances drop by 10 percent. After 10 minutes, it’s unlikely he or she will survive. This is because even though the heart is not beating, it continues to fill with blood and starts to harden. This makes it less likely that defibrillation will start the heart again.
Starting cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) immediately can drastically improve your child’s chances of survival. And an automated external defibrillator (AED) should be used as soon as it is available. Many schools and businesses have AEDs on the property.
After you or medical professionals place the AED’s pads on your child’s chest, the AED will analyze your child’s heart rhythm. When the shock is advised and delivered to the heart, the erratic quivering stops and helps your child’s normal heart rhythm resume.
Preventing Heart Disease
Genetics play a large part in determining whether your child will get heart disease. A family history of heart attacks or severely high cholesterol can make your child more likely to get a heart attack.
It’s also possible that your child’s heart or arteries have structural abnormalities that your child was born with. Sometimes children are born with a rare disease called Kawasaki disease, and complications of this disease can lead to inflammation of the arteries. Unfortunately, there’s not much you can do about these problems.
But genetics aside, there are several heart attack risk factors that you can do something about right now!
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Physical inactivity
High blood pressure
While it’s rare for kids to have high blood pressure, it can happen, especially if there’s a family history of high blood pressure. Make sure your child’s blood pressure gets checked at his or her yearly check-up. High blood pressure can be a sign of an underlying problem like kidney disease. Making lifestyle changes, like being more active and eating less salt, can help control hereditary blood pressure.
When cholesterol, a fatty substance found in your blood, is too high, it begins to build up in fatty deposits in your blood vessels. These deposits can eventually break off and form clots that block arteries, leading to a heart attack. It’s pretty rare for kids to have high cholesterol levels, but sometimes it runs in the family. Kids who are obese or who have high blood pressure may also be at risk for having higher cholesterol levels.
To reduce this risk, your child should get lots of exercise – at least half an hour to an hour every day. He or she should also eat fewer fatty foods and more whole grains and fresh fruits and vegetables.
Being overweight is a major risk factor that causes heart problems because it can raise your blood pressure and cholesterol levels. The American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry estimates that about 17 percent of children are obese. It’s much more problematic for children to be obese than adults because the fat cells we gain as children stay with us as adults, making it much harder to lose weight in later life.
Your child’s doctor can calculate your child’s body mass index (BMI) from weight and height. Because age and gender both affect whether a BMI is considered underweight or overweight, your child’s doctor will plot this on a chart with other children’s measurements to determine your child’s percentile.The higher your child’s percentile, the more obese he or she is.
There are several things you can do to manage your child’s obesity, including watching what your child eats and encouraging him or her to be more active.
Not being active then is obviously a problem because it contributes to each of these other risk factors! The American Heart Association recommends that children get about 60 minutes of exercise every day
There are lots of ways you can encourage your child to be more active. The first thing to do is to limit the amount of time your child is spending on sedentary activities like watching TV or surfing the web. Get the whole family involved and go on walks and hikes together. Or look into sports and after school activities that get your child moving.
Doing all of these things will not only reduce your risk of a heart attack, but they will also lead to a healthier life and a better quality of living overall. An added bonus is that you’ll get to spend more time bonding with your child!
Mike Zhang. Founder of FamilyLifeShare