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Heart Attack Symptoms

Every year about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack, and roughly 15 percent are fatal.

Every year about 805,000 Americans have a myocardial infarction (MI), better known as a heart attack. That’s one every 40 seconds. The American Heart Association estimates that roughly 15 percent are fatal. Coronary artery disease is the leading cause of heart attacks, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). 

The faster you can get treatment, the more likely it will be successful. That means you have to recognize heart attack symptoms and be ready to act. 

Heart attack basics 
A heart attack occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries that surround the heart becomes blocked, cutting off all or part of the oxygen-rich blood the heart needs to function properly, causing damage. Blood flow can be restricted due to the buildup of cholesterol and fatty deposits in the artery, called plaque. Less often, a heart attack can happen when the coronary arteries spasm and block blood flow. 

Heart attack warning signs 
About one in five heart attacks have no symptoms. The most common symptom is chest pain lasting between 30 and 60 minutes, usually described as crushing, squeezing or burning. Sometimes people just have other heart attack symptoms, which may include: 

  • Pain in the neck, jaw, either or both arms or stomach 
  • Light-headedness 
  • Shortness of breath 
  • Cold sweats 
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • Indigestion, a feeling of fullness or gas 
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat 
  • Unusual fatigue 
  • Anxiety 

Symptoms can appear suddenly, or start mildly and come and go for hours or days. Not every heart attack will have all of these symptoms, and some of these signs might be mistaken for heartburn, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism or even a broken rib. Women may also exhibit different, more subtle heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and pain in the back of the jaw. 

“Some people just have this disbelief that this can’t be happening to me, especially a younger person or a woman,” says Reginald Blaber, MD, a cardiologist with Our Lady of Lourdes Medical Center in Camden, New Jersey. “Other people don’t get classic symptoms. Sometimes it’s just a little jaw pain, or arm pain, or they just don’t feel well.” This is especially true for women and people with diabetes. 

What to do 
Call 9-1-1 right away if you think you or someone around you is having a heart attack. The operator, the emergency medical technician (EMT) or your healthcare provider may instruct you to take (or give) aspirin if it is not a risk to your health. Do not drive yourself or someone else having a heart attack to the hospital. Wait for an ambulance; emergency medical service personnel are trained in cardiac emergencies and can start treatment on the way to the hospital. 

“If something is wrong and you’re not sure what it is, let’s get you evaluated,” says Dr. Blaber. “Don’t feel embarrassed that you came to the hospital. We’d rather you raise a false alarm than sit at home for 12 hours while something serious is going on.” 

 Medically reviewed in January 2020. Updated in March 2021. 

Sources: 

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heart Disease Facts.” September 8, 2020.
Virani SS, Alonso A, Benjamin EJ et al. “Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics—2020 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association.” Circulation, Vol 141, No. 9, March 3, 2020.
Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. “Heart Attack Symptoms, Risk, and Recovery” January 11, 2021.
National Heart, Blood and Lung Institute. “Heart Attack.” Accessed on January 28, 2021.
A Maziar Zafari, Eric H Yang. “Myocardial Infarction.” Medscape. May 7, 2019.
Mayo Clinic. “Heart Attack.” June 16, 2020.
Ranya N. Sweis and Arif Jivan. “Acute Coronary Syndromes (Heart Attack; Myocardial Infarction; Unstable Angina).” Merck Manuals. July 2020.
American Heart Association. “Heart Attack Symptoms in Women.” July 31, 2015.
American Heart Association. “Warning Signs of a Heart Attack.” Accessed on January 28, 2021.American Heart Association. “Aspirin and Heart Disease.” March 20, 2019. 

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