Could It Be a Heart Attack? Here’s What to Do

Acting fast makes survival more likely. Here's what you need to know.

man grabbing upper arm

Medically reviewed in February 2022

Updated on February 17, 2022

About 805,000 people in the United States have heart attacks each year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). And roughly 12 percent of them are fatal.

But many people who have heart attacks put off getting help by hours. In one study, nearly two-thirds of participants delayed getting help for two hours or more. That delay can mean they’re less likely to survive and recover.

If you think you or another person could be having a heart attack, don't wait. Follow the steps below and get help.

Know the signs
Major symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, arms, shoulder, or back
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness and light-headedness
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness

You may have heard that women’s heart attack symptoms may differ. Chest pain or discomfort is still the number-one symptom in women, and they can and do experience any of the above symptoms. But they are likelier than men to have:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Back or jaw pain

Some women having a heart attack also experience extreme fatigue, pressure in the abdomen, or fainting.

What to do
Ignoring heart attack symptoms could cost a person their life. The American Heart Association says that calling 911 immediately offers the best chance of surviving or saving a life, that it is safe for everyone to call 911, and that it is safe for anyone to go to the hospital.

If you think you (or another person) may be having a heart attack, follow these three steps:

Call 911. Don't wait longer than five minutes to get help. Say to the 911 operator, "I think I'm having a heart attack." (If it later turns out that you’re not, that’s still okay—emergency services are there to help sort out problems of all kinds.)

Follow the operator's directions. Don’t do anything before talking to them. In particular, do not spend time taking an aspirin and waiting for pain relief. Aspirin is not enough on its own to treat a heart attack.

The operator may advise taking aspirin, if you don’t have allergies. Aspirin can help by inhibiting clots that further restrict blood flow to the heart.

“Aspirin is a drug that impacts the ability of platelets to stick to each other,” says Reginald Blaber, MD, a cardiologist and chief clinical officer with Virtua Health in Haddonfield, New Jersey. “That’s important because during a heart attack a clot is forming in one of the coronary arteries. By taking aspirin it can relatively quickly take those platelets and make them less sticky, slowing the growth of the clot.”

Don't try to drive yourself to the hospital or have someone drive you. Instead, take an ambulance. When you let emergency professionals do their jobs, they can begin diagnosis and treatment on the scene. Plus, they can give the hospital a heads-up that you are on the way.

Article sources open article sources

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart Disease Facts.
Chatterjee P, Joynt Maddox KE. US National Trends in Mortality From Acute Myocardial Infarction and Heart Failure: Policy Success or Failure? JAMA Cardiol. 2018;3(4):336–340.
Ogushi A, Hikoso S, Kitamura T, et al. Factors Associated With Prehospital Delay Among Patients With Acute Myocardial Infarction in the Era of Percutaneous Coronary Intervention - Insights From the OACIS Registry [published online ahead of print, 2021 Dec 24]. Circ J. 2021.
Cha JJ, Bae S, Park DW, et al. Clinical Outcomes in Patients With Delayed Hospitalization for Non-ST-Segment Elevation Myocardial Infarction. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2022;79(4):311-323.
American Heart Association. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. Accessed February 9, 2022.
American Heart Association. Heart Attack Symptoms in Women. Accessed February 9, 2022.
American Heart Association Newsroom. The new pandemic threat: People may die because they’re not calling 911. Published April 22, 2020.
American Heart Association. Proactive steps can reduce chances of second heart attack. April 4, 2019.

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