What is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack (or a myocardial infarction) is caused when the heart isn’t getting the blood flow it needs. This is usually because of blood clots in the arteries that transport blood to the heart. Clots usually start out as buildup of fat, cholesterol, or other substances that form plaque on artery walls. When the plaque breaks away it forms a clot. A heart attack can damage or even destroy part of the heart muscle. That is why it is so important to know how to recognize a heart attack when it is happening, to get emergency medical care as soon as possible.
How to Recognize a Heart Attack
It is so important to learn how to recognize a heart attack. Chest pain is one of the first and most common symptoms of a heart attack. Sensations can vary from mild discomfort to a heavy weight to pinching or burning. The pain usually lasts longer than a few minutes. It can happen while you are doing some physical activity or when you are at rest. Even though it is well-known symptom, you can still have a heart attack without experiencing chest pain.
Perhaps the most well-known sign of a heart attack is pain in the arms. This usually happens on the left side of the body. It almost always starts from chest and moves outward.
Gastrointestinal pains and discomforts can be another sign of heart attack. These can include nausea, indigestion, heartburn, and stomach pain. It can even lead to vomiting.
Feeling dizzy or lightheaded can also be major signs. This is usually a sudden unsteadiness, accompanied by chest pain and shortness of breath. This could be caused by a sudden drop in blood pressure because the heart isn’t pumping blood properly.
Jaw or throat pain by itself is probably not a heart attack. But if the pain or pressure starts in chest and spreads to jaw, it is likely the sign of a heart attack.
A heart attack is likely to cause sudden exhaustion. Like getting dizzy or having shortness of breath, sudden weakness can be a sign of the heart not functioning properly. These signs are often more important than pain in the chest in arms. If you get fatigued by doing something that isn’t usually a problem for you, don’t hesitate to seek emergency help.
Breaking out in a cold sweat for no reason can also be a heart attack symptom.
A constant cough can be a sign if you have heart disease or know you are at risk. Otherwise it is probably not a heart attack. It is usually a long-lasting cough that produces white or pink mucus, signs of blood leaking back into the lungs.
Swollen legs, feet, ankles can be a sign heart isn’t pumping properly. During a heart attack, the blood backs up in the veins, causing bloating. Heart failure makes it harder for kidneys to remove extra water and sodium, which also leads to bloating.
An irregular heartbeat can be a symptom and a cause. It is normal for the heart to beat out of time occasionally, especially after physical exertion. But if the heart beating out of time more than a few seconds it could be signs of atrial fibrillation (irregular heartbeats due to abnormal electrical signals), which requires medical treatment. Atrial fibrillation can lead to heart attack and stroke.
What to Do When a Heart Attack Strikes
First, remember that heart attacks affect people differently; not everyone will see the same symptoms. But the more symptoms you have, the more likely it is you are having a heart attack. Heart attacks can be sudden, but many people experience warning signs days or weeks in advance. Some of the earliest warning signs could be chest pain (angina) triggered by physical exertion. This is caused by a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart.
If you suspect you are having a heart attack, it is better to be safe than sorry. Call 911 or seek emergency medical help. Do not drive yourself to the hospital unless there are no other options.
If someone else might be having a heart attack, first call for emergency help. Check for breathing and pulse if they are unconscious. If they are not breathing or do not have a pulse, only then should you start CPR. (See instructions below.)
Some medications can help reduce heart attack damage. Take nitroglycerin as instructed if prescribed by your doctor. Taking aspirin can help reduce heart damage by keeping your blood from clotting. Aspirin can interact with other medications, so only take it if your doctor or emergency medical professional recommends it. Call for emergency help before taking any medication to make sure it is OK to take.
- Push hard and fast on the person’s chest, about 100 to 120 compressions per minute.
- If you have not been trained in CPR, doctors recommend performing only chest compressions.
- If you have been trained, continue to open the airway and perform rescue breathing.