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Watch Your Heart: Frequently Asked Questions about Heart Attacks

Heart Attack Warning Signs

Q: How will I know if I am having a heart attack?
Often, it is not easy to tell; however, there are symptoms people may have, including the following:

  • An uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of the chest, which 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 911. Do not wait more than a few minutes – five 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 occurs when some part of the heart does not, temporarily, receive enough blood. A person might notice it during exertion, such as when climbing stairs. Angina is usually relieved within a few minutes by resting or taking prescribed angina medicine. People who have been diagnosed with angina have a greater risk of a heart attack than people without angina.

Pre-Hospital Delay Time

Q: I would rather wait until I am sure something is really wrong. What is the rush anyway?
Clot-busting drugs and other artery-opening treatments work best when given within the first hour after a heart attack commences. The first hour is also the most risky time during a heart attack, because it is when your heart might stop suddenly. A quick response to your symptoms increases greatly your chance of surviving.

Q: So how quickly should I act?
If you have any heart attack symptoms, call 911 immediately. Do not wait more than a few minutes – five at most.

Q: Why should I bother? If I am going to die, there is not much I can do about it anyway, is there?
That is not true. There are things 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.

Since these new therapies are available, it is very sad to know so many people cannot receive these treatments because they wait too long before seeking care. The greatest benefit from these therapies is gained when patients seek treatment quickly, preferably within the first hour of the start of their symptoms.

The Role of Emergency Medical Personnel

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 personnel, for emergency medical services — bring medical care to you. For example, they bring oxygen and medication, and they can actually restart your heart if it stops after they arrive. Your wife/ husband/friend/co-worker cannot do that and he/she cannot help you at all if he/she is driving. In the ambulance, there are enough people to give you the help you need and get you to the hospital right away.

Your Steps to Survival

Q: I am 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 co-workers 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 are taking, in one place. If you have any symptoms of a heart attack for a few minutes – do not wait more than five minutes before calling EMS by dialing 911.

Q: I carry nitroglycerin pills all the time for my heart condition. If I have heart attack symptoms, should 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 911 to take an aspirin. Studies have shown people sometimes delay seeking help if they take an aspirin or other medicine. Emergency department personnel will administer aspirin to a heart attack victim as soon as possible. The best thing to do is to call 911 immediately, and let the professionals give you the aspirin.

*Material provided by the American Heart Association