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Signs of a heart attack
Many people think a heart attack is sudden, like a "movie" heart attack, where someone clutches her chest and falls over. But the truth is that many heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort. These feelings may even come and go. A heart attack is very serious and you should get to the hospital right away by calling 9-1-1. Learn what to expect at the hospital when you're having a heart attack.
For both women and men, the most common sign of a heart attack is pain or discomfort in the center of the chest. The pain or discomfort can be mild or strong. It can last more than a few minutes, or it can go away and come back. See the figure, "Signs of a Heart Attack," for a full list of heart attack signs.
Women are more likely than men to have the "other" common signs of a heart attack. These include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and pain in the back, neck, or jaw. Sometimes the signs of a heart attack happen suddenly. But they can also develop slowly, over hours, days, and even weeks before a heart attack occurs.
The more heart attack signs that you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Also, if you've already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same for another one. Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.
If you think you, or someone else, may be having a heart attack, wait no more than a few minutes — five at most — before calling 911. Do not drive yourself or let a friend drive you. You may need medical help on the way to the hospital. Paramedics are trained to treat you on the way to the emergency room.
Getting there quickly is very important. Treatments for opening clogged arteries work best within the first hour after a heart attack starts. Women are more likely than men to die of a heart attack. One reason is that women often have the less-common signs. This can lead to misdiagnosis. If you think you're having a heart attack, get emergency help right away. Don't let anyone tell you that you are overreacting or to wait and see. Ask for tests that can show if you're having a heart attack. It's better to be safe than sorry.
A heart attack is not the same as cardiac arrest. In a heart attack, the heart does not usually stop beating. During cardiac arrest, the heart totally stops beating.
With cardiac arrest, the only way to restart the heart is with a defibrillator (dee-FIB-ruh-lay-tur), a machine that sends an electrical shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm. This treatment must be given as soon as possible. Call 911 and begin CPR immediately. The American Heart Association says that with "hands only" CPR, anyone can give lifesaving treatment to someone having cardiac arrest. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest and keep going until emergency personnel arrive. Do not give CPR for heart attack.
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More information on Signs of a heart attack
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Act in Time to Heart Attack Signs - This website explains what to do if you think someone may be having a heart attack. Acting fast can save lives. This website also offers tips to reduce heart attack risk and reviews the tests used to find out if a person is having a heart attack.
Heart Attack Risk Assessment (Copyright © American Heart Association) - The American Heart Association has developed a heart attack and interactive coronary heart disease assessment tool for people aged 20 years and older who do not already have heart disease or diabetes. After completing your assessment, you can print your results and use them to help reduce your risk of developing heart disease.
Heart Attack Symptoms: An Action Plan for Women (Copyright © Women's Heart Foundation) - Many heart attack deaths could be prevented if victims got treatment more quickly — within an hour of the onset of symptoms. This publication lists risk factors for heart disease and heart attack symptoms, including symptoms that are more common in women. Women who suspect that they’re having a heart attack should call 911 immediately.
Heart Disease and Heart Attacks: What Women Need to Know (Copyright © American Academy of Family Physicians) - Women are at risk of heart attack just like men, but the signs and symptoms can be different. This fact sheet describes the difference in symptoms between men and women and explains how you can protect yourself from heart disease.
Heart Disease in Women: Understand Symptoms and Risk Factors (Copyright © Mayo Foundation) - What can you do to help prevent heart disease? This fact sheet explains the symptoms of heart disease unique to women and recommends ways to keep your heart healthy.
Warning Signs of Heart Attack, Stroke, and Cardiac Arrest (Copyright © American Heart Association) - The American Heart Association encourages everyone to learn how to respond quickly to a heart emergency. This website reviews the warning signs of a heart attack and stroke and explains what actions to take to in a heart emergency.
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Content last updated February 01, 2009.
Resources last updated February 01, 2009.
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