How to Tell If It May Be a Heart Attack
Know the warning signs and when to call 911.

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How to Tell If It May Be a Heart Attack

You've probably seen someone acting out a heart attack in a movie. The actor clutches his chest and falls to the ground.

That isn't necessarily what happens in real life. Some heart attacks start slowly. You may have mild chest pain or discomfort - or no pain at all. You may not realize you're having a heart attack.

The symptoms can be different for everyone. Here are some common heart attack symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, usually in the center or left side of your chest. It may last longer than a few minutes, or it may go away and return. You may feel pressure, squeezing, pain or fullness.
  • Pain or discomfort in the upper body. You could have pain in one or both arms, neck, jaw, back, shoulders or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. You may have this with or without chest pain or discomfort.
  • Other symptoms, such as nausea, breaking out in a cold sweat, or feeling lightheaded. Some people may feel unusually tired.

While chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, not everyone has it. Some people have what is known as a "silent" heart attack - one with little or no symptoms. Women, older people and people with diabetes are more likely not to have chest pain. Women are more likely than men to feel shortness of breath, experience vomiting or nausea, and pain in the shoulders, jaw or back. They are somewhat more likely to feel fatigued, sometimes for days.

Don't delay
If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 911 immediately!
If it is a heart attack, your heart is not receiving enough oxygen-rich blood. This can quickly cause heart damage or even death.

If you have any of the above symptoms, even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, take these steps:

  • Call 911 right away - every minute counts. Tell the operator you may be having a heart attack. Stay on the phone until help arrives.  Follow any advice provided by the 911 operator on what to do while awaiting the ambulance. 
  • You should not try to drive yourself to the hospital. Emergency medical workers on an ambulance can start life-saving treatment if needed on the way to the hospital.
  • Stay calm. Sit or lie down.
  • Follow directions provided by your doctor during office visits for what to do if you have chest pain. For example, if your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin tables, take as directed.

Don't put off getting help. Fast action can save your life.

By Ginny Greene, Editor
Created on 02/04/2000
Updated on 07/09/2014
  • American Heart Association. Warning signs of heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest.
  • National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
  • American Heart Association. Heart attack symptoms in women.
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