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Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimate that about 720,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. A heart attack (acute myocardial infarction) can have a profound effect on your quality of life. If you have a heart attack, some of your heart muscle becomes damaged and die. That’s why treatment for heart attacks focuses on preserving your heart’s function and preventing another heart attack in the future.

Many people think a heart attack is sudden and intense, like a "movie" heart attack, where a person clutches his or her chest and falls over.

The truth is that many heart attacks start slowly, as a mild pain or discomfort. If you feel such a symptom, you may not be sure what's wrong. Your symptoms may even come and go.

Even those who have had a heart attack may not recognize their symptoms since the next heart attack can have different symptoms. Women may not think they are at risk of a heart attack - but they are.

You are at higher risk of heart disease if you are: 

  • A woman age 55 or older
  • A man age 45 or older
  • Or a person with a family history of early heart disease 

The warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath. Often comes along with chest discomfort. But it also can occur before chest discomfort.
  • Other symptoms may include:
    • Breaking out in a cold sweat
    • Nausea
    • Light-headedness
    Learn the signs...but also remember:
    Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack, you should still have it checked out. Fast action can save lives...maybe your own.

  • Signs of a heart attack for women 

    The most common warning sign of a heart attack in both men and women is chest discomfort –usually in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
    Although both men and women can experience atypical symptoms of a heart attack, 70 percent of women have had heart attacks without any chest pain at all. Listen to your body. Trust your instincts. 

    Women can experience atypical symptoms such as: 

  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea/vomiting
  • Back or jaw pain
  • Unexplained fatigue
  • Throat discomfort
  • Burping or feeling of indigestion
  • 71% of women report flu-like symptoms for two to four weeks prior to having more acute chest discomfort.

  • If you suspect a heart attack, every second counts

    It is important to recognize the signs of a heart attack and to act immediately by calling 9-1-1, even if you are not sure you're having a heart attack. The faster you are treated, the lower your risk is of heart muscle damage or death.

    All of the following can be signs of a heart attack:

    • chest discomfort, pressure, tightness
    • fainting
    • lightheadedness
    • nausea, vomiting, belching
    • pain or discomfort in the center of the chest (for women)
    • palpitations
    • shortness of breath
    • squeezing that spreads through the chest and/or radiates to other areas of the body
    • sweating
    • unusual fatigue

    Prevention strategies

    Almost all heart attacks can be prevented if you: 

  • Don’t smoke or quit
  • Get treatment for heart conditions like high blood pressure and high cholesterol
  • Control your blood sugar if you have type 2 diabetes
  • Eat a low-sodium (salt) diet, rich in vegetables, fruit, and whole grains
  • Exercise regularly
  • Maintain a healthy body weight
  • Cope effectively with stress

  • For a cardiologist at St. John’s, call (877) 753-6248, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. For emergency heart care, call 911