How to Tell if It's a Heart Attack
Know the warning signs of a heart attack.

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Picture of a heart How to Tell if It's a Heart Attack

You'll know when you're having a heart attack by that telltale elephant-sitting-on-your-chest feeling, right? Maybe, but not always.

Some heart attacks start slowly. You may have some mild chest pain or discomfort. You may not think you're having a heart attack and wait too long to get help.

Heart attack symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort, usually in the center of your chest. It may last longer than a few minutes, or it may go away and come back. You may feel pressure, squeezing, pain, or fullness.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas. You could have pain in one or both of your arms, neck, jaw, back, 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.

In women, like men, the most common symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are more likely than men to have other symptoms, including:

  • Indigestion, nausea, or vomiting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Neck, back, or jaw pain
  • Stomach pain or heartburn
  • Lightheadedness or unusual tiredness
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

What you should do if you think you're having a heart attack:

  • Call 9-1-1 right away. Tell the operator you may be having a heart attack. Don't hang up. It may help emergency workers find your address if you pass out.
  • If you are not allergic to aspirin or do not have recent bleeding, chew one adult-dose aspirin or two low-dose "baby" aspirin while waiting for help to arrive.
  • Stay calm. Sit or lie down.
  • If your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin medicines, take as directed.
  • Do not drive yourself to the hospital.
  • Do not delay getting medical treatment, even if you're not sure it's a heart attack.

Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of death in the United States. Women often think of heart disease as a man's disease because men tend to develop it 10 years earlier than women. Yet once a woman reaches menopause, she catches up and even exceeds a man's risk. That's because estrogen, which protects women against heart disease, drops in menopause.

Women's heart attacks are more damaging
Women's heart attacks tend to be more damaging and more likely to happen again than men's. Also, women generally don't do as well with bypass surgery as men do.

No one knows exactly why the scales seem to be tipped against women. One theory is that, because women develop heart disease at a later age than men, they usually have other health problems.

How can you help prevent a heart attack?

  • Don't smoke. If you smoke, quit. If someone in your household smokes, encourage him or her to quit, too.
  • Eat heart-healthy foods. Choose lean meats and low-fat or fat-free milk and other dairy foods. Eat whole grains, and plenty of fruits and vegetables. Watch your sodium and sugar intake. Ask your doctor about whether you should eat 2 fatty-fish meals per week. Cut down on saturated and trans fats. Saturated fat is found in most animal foods. You'll find trans fat in many packaged and processed foods, such as cookies, crackers, and chips.
  • Lower high blood pressure and cholesterol. If you have high cholesterol or high blood pressure, follow your doctor's advice, make lifestyle changes, and take medicines as prescribed.
  • Be active. Do some form of physical activity every day. Shoot for 30 minutes a day. Check with your doctor before you increase your activity level.
  • Manage diabetes. If you have diabetes, be sure to monitor your blood sugar and take medicines as prescribed.
  • Aim for a healthy weight. Being active and eating healthy can help you lose weight if you need to.
  • Reduce stress and limit alcohol. Stress causes some people to drink or smoke to relax. Drinking too much alcohol can raise your blood pressure and lead to other health problems
By Jenilee Matz, MPH, Staff Writer
Created on 02/04/2000
Updated on 07/07/2011
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. What is a heart attack?
  • American Heart Association. Heart disease and stroke statistics -- 2010 Update. Circulation. 2010;121e46-e215.
  • American Heart Association. Warning signs of Heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest warning signs.
  • Markenson D, Ferguson JD, Chameides L, et al. Part 17: First aid: 2010 American Heart Association and American Red Cross guidelines for first aid. Circulation. 2010;122:S934-S946.
  • National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. Heart attack warning signs.
Copyright © OptumHealth.
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