Q: How would I know if I were having a heart attack?
Often, it is not easy to tell. But there are symptoms people may have. These are: an uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back; discomfort in other areas of the upper body, which may be felt in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach; shortness of breath, which often occurs with or before chest discomfort; and other symptoms such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or light-headedness. When in doubt, check it out! Call 9-1-1. Don’t wait more than a few minutes-5 at most. Call right away!
Q: What is angina and how is it different from a heart attack?
An episode of angina is NOT a Heart Attack. However, people with angina report having a hard time telling the difference between angina symptoms and heart attack symptoms. Angina is a recurring pain or discomfort in the chest that happens when some part of the heart does not receive enough blood temporarily. A person may notice it during exertion (such as in climbing stairs). It is usually relieved within a few minutes by resting or by taking prescribed angina medicine. People who have been diagnosed with angina have a greater risk of a heart attack than do other people.
Q: I’d rather wait until I’m sure something’s really wrong. What’s the rush anyway?
Clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments work best when given within the first hour after a Heart Attack starts. The first hour also is the most risky time during a heart attack-it’s when your heart might stop suddenly. Responding fast to your symptoms really increases your chance of surviving.
Q: So how quickly should I act?
If you have any Heart Attack symptoms, call 9-1-1 immediately. Don’t wait for more than a few minutes-5 at most-to call 9-1-1.
Q: Why should I bother? If I’m going to die, there’s not much I can do about it anyway, is there?
That’s not true. There is something that can be done about a heart attack. Doctors have clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening procedures that can stop or reverse a heart attack, if given quickly. These drugs can limit the damage to the heart muscle by removing the blockage and restoring blood flow. Less heart damage means a better quality of life after a heart attack.
Given that these new therapies are available, it’s very sad to know that so many people cannot receive these treatments because they delay too long before seeking care. The greatest benefits of these therapies are gained when patients come in early (preferably within the first hour of the start of their symptoms).
How is a Heart Attack Treated?
How Can I Prevent a Heart Attack?
Q: Emergency medical personnel cause such a commotion. Can’t I just have my wife/husband/friend/coworker take me to the hospital?
Emergency medical personnel-also called EMS, for emergency medical services-bring medical care to you. For example, they bring oxygen and medications. And they can actually restart someone’s heart if it stops after they arrive. Your wife/husband/friend/coworker can’t do that, or help you at all if they are driving. In the ambulance, there are enough people to give you the help you need and get you to the hospital right away.
Q: I’m not sure I can remember all this. What can I do to make it easier for me?
You can make a plan and discuss it in advance with your family, your friends, your coworkers and, of course, your doctor. Then you can rehearse this plan, just like a fire drill. Keep it simple. Know the warning signs. Keep information-such as what medications you’re taking-in one place. If you have any symptoms of a heart attack for a few minutes (no more than 5), call the EMS by dialing 9-1-1 right away.
Q: I carry nitroglycerin pills all the time for my heart condition. If I have heart attack symptoms, shouldn’t I try them first?
Yes, if your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin pills, you should follow your doctor’s orders. If you are not sure about how to take your nitroglycerin when you get chest pain, check with your doctor.
Q: What about taking an aspirin like we see on television?
You should not delay calling 9-1-1 to take an Aspirin. Studies have shown that people sometimes delay seeking help if they take an aspirin (or other medicine). Emergency department personnel will give people experiencing a heart attack an aspirin as soon as they arrive. So, the best thing to do is to call 9-1-1 immediately and let the professionals give the aspirin.
Revision date: July 3, 2011
Last revised: by Sebastian Scheller, MD, ScD