The symptoms of a heart attack may include chest pain or discomfort, difficulty breathing, and dizziness. It is important to note that not everyone experiences the same symptoms.
A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, results from a blockage in a coronary artery, which carries blood to the heart. This disruption in blood flow can create symptoms and damage the heart muscle.
In this article, we list the symptoms of a heart attack and discuss what to do when symptoms begin.
In some people, heart attack symptoms may appear gradually, and in others, they occur suddenly.
Not everyone will experience all the symptoms of a heart attack, and symptoms can vary in intensity and duration. If a person has already experienced a heart attack in the past, symptoms may appear similarly or differently the next time.
According to the American Heart Association (AHA), stages can include:
Chest pain or discomfort
Chest pain is a common symptom of a heart attack.
During this stage of a heart attack, people may experience the following sensations in their chest:
Some people also say that they experience a sense of tightness that can feel as though they are “being squeezed.”
Sometimes, these sensations can appear suddenly and intensely. This happens when the blockage occurs suddenly. If the blockage is slowly progressing over time, then the symptoms appear gradually. In these cases, people may mistake the sensations for heartburn or indigestion.
Anyone who experiences symptoms that occur with exertion and resolve with rest, even if they occur gradually, should always discuss them with a doctor, especially if they progress over time.
However, people should not wait to seek medical care for their chest pain. They should seek medical treatment immediately, particularly if other signs of a heart attack occur as well.
Pain or discomfort in other areas
The sensations that a person may experience in the chest can spread or radiate to other areas of the body, including the:
- arm or shoulder
Shortness of breath
A person can experience breathing difficulties before or during a heart attack.
Shortness of breath can occur due to increasing pressure in the heart or as a symptom of the blockages in the blood vessels.
Dizziness or lightheadedness
Some people may feel faint, dizzy, or lightheaded.
This can be due to poor blood circulation, or it can be a direct result of the symptoms of the blockage.
Experiencing cold sweats or clamminess can also occur during heart attacks.
Cold sweats may feel similar to the sweats that can occur during the flu or another viral illness.
Individuals should take note of other symptoms that occur alongside cold sweats. If they are similar to those of a heart attack, a person should seek urgent medical attention.
Some people experience gastrointestinal symptoms when they are having a heart attack. People may have:
These stomach symptoms can cause people to mistake a heart attack for heartburn.
Unexplained fatigue is another potential symptom of a heart attack or impending heart attack.
People often report feeling more tired than usual, as the blockages can be progressive.
The symptoms and phases of a heart attack can present differently in females than in males.
Other sources explain that females may be more likely to experience the following symptoms:
- shortness of breath
- nausea and vomiting
- pain, especially in the back, shoulders, or jaw
However, according to the British Heart Foundation, females may also be more likely to ignore the symptoms and not seek help as quickly.
Anyone who is experiencing possible heart attack symptoms or is unsure of whether they are experiencing symptoms should seek emergency treatment immediately.
It is vital that people seek emergency medical treatment at the first signs of a heart attack. Untreated heart attacks can lead to serious complications or death.
With treatment, however, most people will recover from a heart attack.
It is important to call 911 immediately if someone is experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack. The AHA advise that calling an ambulance enables treatment to begin up to 60 minutes sooner than if people arrive at the hospital by car.
People experiencing heart attack symptoms should not attempt to drive themselves.
Waiting for emergency medical attention
If a doctor has previously prescribed heart medication for heart conditions, a person should make sure that they have taken this medication. Examples of such heart medication include beta-blockers and nitroglycerin.
Others may take an aspirin tablet, which can thin the blood. However, a person should only take aspirin if a doctor or first responder has recommended it.
Urgent treatment is necessary to reduce the risk of serious damage to the heart tissue.
Immediate treatment at the hospital, even in the absence of a diagnosis, may include:
- aspirin, to prevent further blood clotting
- nitroglycerin, to help relax the arteries to improve blood flow
- oxygen therapy, to increase the amount of oxygen in a person’s body
- morphine, to relieve symptoms
- blood thinner medication, to help dissolve the blockage in the artery
Once a person has received a heart attack diagnosis, a doctor may prescribe medications to dissolve blood clots, perform surgery, or both.
Doctors can perform a procedure to suction the clot or place a metal tube called a stent to open up the blockage. They will likely also prescribe other medicines to reduce the risk of future heart attacks.
Sometimes, surgery may be necessary to improve blood flow to the heart. A surgeon may perform coronary angioplasty or bypass surgery.
Coronary angioplasty, which people also refer to as percutaneous intervention, involves opening up a coronary artery with a stent. Bypass surgery involves redirecting the blood flow around a blockage.
Specific treatment may vary depending on the type of heart attack.
Recovery time can vary depending on the treatment and severity of the heart attack.
Some people may return to work and other activities within 2 weeks, but others may need several months to recover. The recovery time also depends on whether the person underwent a procedure, how the surgeon performed it, and whether there were complications.
Most people will recover from a heart attack and lead a full and productive life.
To improve their outlook, people should seek emergency medical treatment for heart attack symptoms. After recovery, they should follow their treatment plan and lead a heart-healthy lifestyle using preventive methods.
Individuals can take steps to keep their heart healthy and reduce the risk of a heart attack.
According to the AHA, ways to help prevent a heart attack may include:
There are many ways a person can reduce or manage stress. These may include meditation, yoga, or relaxation techniques.
Improving cholesterol levels can also help prevent a heart attack.
A person should also take any medications according to the prescription, both for heart conditions or other conditions that raise the risk of a heart attack. These conditions may include diabetes or hypertension.
Preventive strategies may be especially important for those who have already had a heart attack.
According to the AHA, approximately 20% of those aged 45 years and older will have another heart attack within 5 years of their first.
A heart attack can cause several symptoms, the most well-known of which is chest pain. Sweating, shortness of breath, nausea, dizziness, and fatigue are among the other possible symptoms.
However, it is important to remember that not everyone will experience each symptom, and the symptoms can vary in intensity and duration. Females, in particular, are less likely to develop certain heart attack symptoms.
Calling 911 is the most important thing a person can do when experiencing heart attack symptoms. Immediate medical attention improves the outlook for those who have a heart attack.
People who feel anxious about their risk should speak with their doctor about techniques to help them manage their symptoms and reduce their level of risk.