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Know the Signs: Heart Attack

Know the Signs: Heart Attack

Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack, and roughly 15 percent are fatal.

Every year about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack, that’s one every 43 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 the signs of a heart attack and be ready to act.

Heart attack basics
A heart attack, also known as myocardial infarction, 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. Other symptoms may include:

  • Pain in the neck, jaw, either or both arms or stomach
  • Light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Indigestion
  • Irregular or rapid heart beat
  • 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 might be mistaken for angina, heartburn, pneumonia, pulmonary embolism or even a broken rib. Women may also exhibit different, more subtle heart attack symptoms.

“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 the case with women and diabetics.”

What to do
Call 911 right away if you think you or someone around you is having a heart attack. The operator may instruct you to take (or give) aspirin. 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.”

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