Know the Signs of a Heart Attack

Updated at: Apr 27, 2018
Know the Signs of a Heart Attack

A heart attack is a frightening event—you probably don’t want to think about it. However, if you learn the signs of a heart attack and what steps to take, you can save a life—perhaps your own.

Editorial Team
Heart HealthWritten by: Editorial TeamPublished at: Apr 27, 2018

“I woke up one morning with a kind of thump in my chest and a slight hurting in both arms. Thinking it was arthritis, I got up and started flexing my fingers and arms, but the pain just got deeper…I knew something was wrong, but it never dawned on me that I was having a heart attack.”

You Can Save A Life

A heart attack is a frightening event. However, if you learn the signs of a heart attack and what steps to take, you can save a life—perhaps your own.

The Bad News

During a heart attack, a clot blocks the flow of blood to the heart. Heart muscle begins to die. The more time that passes without treatment, the greater the damage.

The Good News

Fortunately, clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments can stop a heart attack in its tracks. Given immediately after symptoms begin, these treatments can prevent or limit damage to the heart. The sooner they are started, the more good they will do—and the greater the chances are of a full recovery. To be most effective, these treatments need to be given within 1 hour of the start of heart attack symptoms.

Delay Can be Deadly

Most people having a heart attack wait too long to seek medical help, and that can be a fatal mistake. People often take a wait-and see approach, delaying because they:

  • Do not recognize the symptoms of a heart attack and think that what they are feeling is due to something else
  • Are afraid or unwilling to admit that their symptoms could be serious
  • Are embarrassed about “causing a scene,” or going to the hospital and finding out it is a false alarm
  • Do not understand the importance of getting to the hospital right away

As a result, most heart attack victims wait 2 or more hours after their symptoms begin before they seek medical help. This delay can result in death or permanent heart damage— damage that can greatly reduce their ability to do everyday activities.

When in Doubt Check It Out

Uncertainty Is Normal

Many people think a heart attack is sudden and intense, like a “movie” heart attack, where a person clutches his or her chest and

falls over. The truth is that many heart attacks start slowly, as mild pain or discomfort. Someone who feels such a symptom may not be sure what is wrong. Symptoms may even come and go. Even people who have had a heart attack may not recognize the symptoms, because the next attack can have entirely different ones.

Learn the Signs

The warning signs of a heart attack are given on the following page. Learn them, but also remember: Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.

Read: Recognizing Female Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart Attack Warning Signs

Chest Discomfort

Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

Discomfort in Other Areas of the Upper Body

Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

Shortness of Breath

Often comes along with chest discomfort.But it also can occur before the chest discomfort.

Other Signs

May include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness.

Read: Recognizing Male Heart Attack Symptoms

Who is at Risk?

Many people think that heart attacks are mostly a “man’s problem,” yet heart disease is actually the number one killer of both men and women in the United States.

In men, the risk for heart attack increases after age 45. In women, heart attacks are more likely to occur after menopause (usually, after about age 50). Besides age, factors that increase the risk for a heart attack include:

  • A previous heart attack or angina,
  • Family history of early heart disease
  • – father or brother diagnosed before age 55
  • – mother or sister diagnosed before age 65,
  • Diabetes,
  • High blood cholesterol,
  • High blood pressure,
  • Cigarette smoking,
  • Overweight, and
  • Physical inactivity.

If you have one or more of these factors, see your health care provider to find out how to reduce your risk of having a heart attack.

Read: Low Salt Diet increases Risk of Heart Attacks

Plan Ahead

Make a plan now for what you would do if a heart attack should happen. It will save time and could help save your life or someone else’s. To plan ahead:

  • Learn the heart attack warning signs
  • Talk to your health care provider about your heart attack risk and what you can do to reduce it
  • Develop a heart attack survival plan by filling out the card attached to the back cover
  • Keep the plan in a handy place
  • Talk with your family members, friends,and coworkers about the heart attackwarning signs and the importance ofacting fast
  • Explain the benefits of calling 9-1-1 instead of going to the hospital by car.Knowing what to do if a heart attack occurs could save your life or theirs

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