Heart Attack Warning Signs Not to Ignore

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Typical signs of heart attack can include tightness and pain in the chest. But other signs can also include lightheadedness and pain in the neck or jaw.
Every year, an estimated 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Chest pain is the most common heart attack warning sign, but there can be other symptoms, too, such as shortness of breath or lightheadedness. Symptoms may be severe or mild, and can vary from one person to the next.
Sometimes, a heart attack can be mistaken for heartburn or an anxiety attack. In addition, heart attack symptoms can vary between men and women.
This article will take a closer look at the warning signs of a heart attack, what it typically feels like, and how the symptoms can vary between men and women.

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack (also known as a myocardial infarction) happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. If there’s not enough blood flowing to your heart muscle, it can damage the affected part of your heart and cause the muscle to die. This can be life threatening.
Heart attacks are usually caused by waxy plaque that’s built up inside the blood vessels that lead to your heart. This plaque is made up of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol, fats, and other inflammatory products.
When a hard plaque bursts, a blood clot forms quickly. If the clot is big enough, it will disrupt blood flow to your heart.
If the flow of oxygenated blood is completely blocked, the heart tissue supplied by that artery becomes damaged and may die, placing you at higher risk of heart failure and other serious complications.
If you suspect you or someone close to you is having a heart attack, call 911 or local emergency services. Don’t try to drive yourself to the hospital if you have heart attack symptoms. Immediate medical treatment that restores normal blood flow quickly can result in less damage to your heart tissue.

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What does a heart attack feel like?

What does a heart attack feel like?
A heart attack usually involves pain in the center or left side of the chest that lingers for several minutes or comes and goes. The pain can feel different from one person to the next. It’s often described as:
tightness
pressure
squeezing
burning
However, sometimes there are other symptoms in addition to chest pain. And, in some cases, these symptoms may be present without chest pain.
Symptoms that often accompany — or are present without chest pain — include:
shortness of breath, sometimes developing before chest pain
lightheadedness
sudden weakness or fatigue
pain in one or both arms, more often the left arm
pain in the upper back, shoulders, neck, or jaw
nausea and vomiting
sweating
feelings of anxiety or impending doom

How do heart attack symptoms differ for men vs. women?

How do heart attack symptoms differ for men vs. women?
Chest pain or pressure is a common heart attack symptom among both men and women.
However, the feeling of chest discomfort can be somewhat different for men and women. There are also some non-classic heart attack warning signs that are more common among women.
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Illustration by Bailey Mariner
Heart attack warning signs for men
The classic symptom of chest pain may not be present in every heart attack, but it remains the most common warning sign, especially among men.
The pain is often described as a heavy weight on the chest. It tends to be located in the center of the chest, but it can be felt from armpit to armpit.
Other heart attack symptoms that are common among men include:
shortness of breath, which sometimes develops before any other symptoms, and may be present when sitting still or moving around
a sudden cold sweat
back pain, often moving up to the neck
arm pain, typically in the left arm, but can be in either or both arms
nausea
symptoms that come on quickly
Heart attack warning signs for women
While chest pain is often a symptom of a heart attack among women, the pain is often described as pressure or tightness instead of the “heavy weight on the chest” pain that men describe.
In some cases, there may only be other symptoms and very little or no chest pain.
Women are also more likely than men to experience nontraditional heart attack symptoms, such as:
unusual or extreme fatigue, which may develop several days before other symptoms and may make you feel like you’re coming down with the flu
pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen that may feel like heartburn or indigestion
throat and jaw pain, often without any chest pain (jaw pain can coincide with a heart attack because the nerves that serve the heart and those that serve the jaw are close together)
dizziness, lightheadedness
upper back pain that may feel like burning, tingling, or pressure
pain, tingling, or discomfort in either or both arms
nausea and vomiting
symptoms that come on gradually
Women are often reluctant to seek medical attention for heart attack symptoms, partly because of delays in recognizing heart attack symptoms since they’re not commonly talked about.
While women are slightly less likely than men to have heart attacks before menopause, the odds essentially are equal after menopause.

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What to do if you have heart attack symptoms

What to do if you have heart attack symptoms
Because certain symptoms, such as nausea or fatigue, can signal any number of health concerns, it’s important to be aware of other possible heart attack symptoms.
If you suddenly become nauseated and are having trouble catching your breath or you have serious jaw pain, call 911. Tell the 911 dispatcher you may be having a heart attack.
You may be reluctant to call 911 if you’re not sure whether you or a loved one is having a heart attack, but it’s better to err on the side of caution.
A heart attack is often a life threatening emergency. The faster you get medical attention, the better chance you have of a good recovery.
When to call 911
Any time you have pain or pressure in your chest that lasts more than a few minutes and is different to pain you’ve felt before, it’s important to get medical attention as soon as possible. This is especially important if you have other symptoms, too, such as:
shortness of breath
nausea or vomiting
lightheadedness
a sudden cold sweat
back, neck, arm, or jaw pain
extreme fatigue
While you’re waiting for an ambulance to arrive, make sure to stay on the phone with the 911 dispatcher, and unlock the front door for emergency personnel to come in.
The 911 dispatcher may tell you to chew on an aspirin while you wait for them. This may not be safe to do if you take blood-thinning medications.
Try to remember how and when your symptoms began so you can provide this information to the emergency personnel.

Silent heart attacks

Silent heart attacks
To make matters even more complicated, some heart attacks occur without any traditional symptoms, or even any noticeable symptoms at all.
These so-called silent heart attacks could represent nearly a quarter of all heart attacks in the United States, according to the American Heart Association.
A silent heart attack may resolve on its own if, for example, the clot blocking blood flow dissolves or becomes dislodged and is absorbed into the body. But a silent heart attack can still cause damage.
If a doctor discovers that you had a silent heart attack, you may want to consider cardiac rehabilitation and the type of care that any other person who’s had a heart attack receives.
A silent heart attack may be discovered months or years after the fact if you have an electrocardiogram (EKG) to check your heart’s electrical system. Evidence of a heart attack can often be seen in the electrical patterns picked up by the EKG.

Pre-heart attack symptoms

Pre-heart attack symptoms
Even though a heart attack is a sudden event, some symptoms can come on mildly and slowly.
You may feel unusually tired for a few days leading up to the onset of more serious symptoms. Some people who’ve experienced a heart attack report feelings of anxiety and dread for a few days before the onset of other symptoms. This tends to be more common among women, but can happen with men, too.
Mild to moderate pain in one or both arms, along with shortness of breath and nausea, may also occur in the lead-up to a major heart attack.

What are the risk factors for a heart attack?

What are the risk factors for a heart attack?
Some people are at a higher risk of a heart attack than others. If you have any of the following risk factors, it’s especially important to pay attention to any warning signs of a heart attack:
LDL (bad) cholesterol of 130 milligrams per deciliter or higher
high blood pressure
diabetes
age (men over 45 and women over 55)
smoke cigarettes
obesity
a sedentary lifestyle
a family history of heart disease

The takeaway

The takeaway
Chest pain is the most common heart attack warning sign. What it feels like, though, can be somewhat different for men versus women. With men, the pain is often described as a heavy weight on the chest, and tends to be located in the center of the chest.
With women, chest pain that’s associated with a heart attack is often described as pressure or tightness. In some cases, there may only be other symptoms and very little or no chest pain.
Other heart attack symptoms that are more common among women include abdominal discomfort, dizziness, extreme fatigue, and jaw pain.
It’s very important not to ignore any symptoms that feel like a heart attack. Even if you’re not having a heart attack, it’s better to be evaluated than to risk serious, life threatening complications.
Trust your instincts and pay attention to what your body is telling you. If your chest pain or symptoms last more than a few minutes, don’t hesitate to call 911 immediately.

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