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10 signs you’re having a heart attack and may need emergency treatment

July 16, 2014 (Updated: October 29, 2019)
Lily Moran

You’ve seen an actor clutch his chest, gasp in pain, and fall over, pretending to have a heart attack for the cameras. But many heart attacks in real life don’t happen that way. Unfortunately, if you don’t recognize heart attack symptoms and get immediate help, you can impede your recovery…or even wind up dying!

Learn the real-life symptoms of heart attacks, so this doesn’t happen to you or your loved ones.

Signs & Symptoms of a Heart Attack

Heart Attack Symptoms in Men

  • Chest pain or discomfort (such as feeling pressure, squeezing, burning, fullness, or tightness in the chest), which may last for more than a few minutes or goes away and then returns
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the jaw, the upper portion of the stomach, the neck, or the back
  • Shortness of breath with or before onset of chest discomfort
  • Indigestion
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Fatigue, insomnia, or feeling drained of energy

These symptoms are similar to those experienced by patients with angina, the name given to chest pain caused by heart disease. Angina pain normally recedes when you rest or take a dose of nitroglycerin. However, if the pain does not respond to either rest or medication within 20 minutes or if it is more severe than usual, get medical attention immediately.

Medical science has made it increasingly clear that men and women really are different, and one important way is in their cardiovascular systems. Heart attack symptoms for women are different from those listed above.

Heart Attack Symptoms in Women

Before a heart attack, women often have pre–heart attack symptoms a month or more earlier. These symptoms may include the following (in order of frequency):

  •    Atypical (unusual) fatigue
  •    Sleep issues
  •    Shortness of breath
  •    Indigestion
  •    Anxiety

During a heart attack, women tend to experience symptoms similar to those before the attack (but in slightly different order in terms of frequency), listed here with most common first:

  •    Shortness of breath
  •    Weakness
  •    Atypical fatigue
  •    Cold sweat
  •    Dizziness

Unlike men, most women do not experience chest pains. In fact, a study conducted by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) found that fewer than 30 percent of women who suffered heart attacks reported chest pain.

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Chronic Inflammation Decoded

Heart attack symptoms in men or women may occur from out of the blue, or they may develop over a period of time, ranging from a few days to weeks. Understand, too, that heart attack symptoms can vary with each individual, and those listed above are not the only possibilities. And although a second heart attack is often similar to the first, that’s not always the case. So if you’ve already had a heart attack, don’t ignore possible symptoms just because they seem different this time.

What to Do When Symptoms Occur

If you or someone you’re with is feeling weak or tired and is experiencing symptoms that could signal a heart attack:

  • Call 911 for help immediately.
  • While you wait for the ambulance, we recommend chewing and swallowing an aspirin (preferably full strength, not a baby aspirin) and drinking a glass of water, if possible, to thin the blood.
  • Do not drive yourself to the hospital or wait for someone to take you. Paramedics can begin treating a patient when they arrive, and the sooner an individual gets help, the less damage to the heart.

Do not wait to get help, and do not worry about disrupting a family get-together or business meeting if you’re in pain. In fact, hesitating or waiting to see what happens is the reason for the increase in holiday heart attack fatalities. Researchers from the University of California, San Diego found that heart attack deaths increase during winter holidays. They believe the reason is that people put off getting treatment to avoid ruining the party. But how much worse is it to have the party turn into a funeral?

Why Heart Attacks Happen

Heart attacks (myocardial infarcation) are the most common cause of death in the United States. Most victims have coronary artery disease caused by atherosclerosis, fatty deposits inside arteries that interfere with blood flow. People at risk for heart attacks include those with the following conditions:

  • Heart disease
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • A family history of heart disease

As we age, damage in our arteries from diabetes, high blood pressure, cigarette smoking, or high cholesterol can cause fatty plaque deposits to build up. If the plaque breaks off, causing a blood clot, it can physically block off the artery. This cuts off blood to the heart (a heart attack). No blood means no oxygen, and that lack of oxygen can kill part of your heart muscle.

How Can You Prevent a Heart Attack?

Keeping your heart healthy is a matter of treating your body right. You need to get sufficient sleep; eat a nutritious, whole foods diet; exercise; and take heart-healthy supplements like CoQ10 and omega-3. Taking curcumin will fight the inflammation that is another cause of heart disease. And your mental health is important, too. Both stress and explosive anger are risk factors for heart disease.

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