Can You Recognize a Heart Attack? Look For These Common (and Not-So-Common) Signs
According to the movies, a heart attack is dramatic and obvious: pain in the left arm and severe chest discomfort tells you it’s time to call 911. But the reality can often be quite different.
In addition to chest pain or discomfort, upper body pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach, a heart attack can also present with shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness. If you or someone you know is experiencing these symptoms, it is important to seek medical attention immediately.
Some of the more unusual symptoms you might not know about include fatigue, weakness, a feeling of indigestion or heartburn, unusual or unexplained anxiety and a sense of impending doom. Others are jaw or teeth pain, a feeling of fullness in the throat and even upper back pain. These symptoms can be more difficult to recognize as signs of a heart attack and are often overlooked or attributed to other causes. It is important to be aware of these unusual symptoms and seek medical attention if you experience any of them, especially if they are accompanied by more common heart attack symptoms such as chest pain.
Differences for men and women
Heart attack symptoms can be different in men and women. Men are more likely to experience the more typical symptoms of a heart attack such as chest pain or discomfort, while women are more likely to experience atypical symptoms such as shortness of breath, fatigue, weakness and back or jaw pain. Women are also more likely to experience nausea or vomiting, and to feel lightheaded or dizzy. Additionally, women are more likely to have a heart attack at a younger age than men and also have higher mortality rate.
Know the risks
There are several factors that can increase your risk of having a heart attack, including:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
- Family history of heart disease
- Lack of physical activity
- Poor diet
- Age, especially if you’re a man over 45 or a woman over 55
If you have any of these risk factors, it’s important to talk to your primary care physician about your risk for heart disease and what you can do to reduce your risk. They may recommend lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, getting regular exercise, quitting smoking, and managing any chronic medical conditions you may have. They may also recommend preventive measures such as cholesterol-lowering medication (known as a statin) or blood pressure medication. Again, if you have any symptoms of a heart attack, seek medical help immediately.
Heart attack facts
Here are a few unusual facts about heart attacks:
- Heart attacks can happen at any age. While heart disease is more common in older adults, heart attacks can happen to people of any age, even young adults and children.
- Some people may not experience any symptoms before a heart attack. This is known as a silent heart attack, and it’s more common in older adults and people with diabetes.
- Heart attacks can happen during physical activity. While physical activity is generally good for the heart, intense exertion can trigger a heart attack, particularly in people with underlying heart disease.
- Stress and emotional distress can increase the risk of a heart attack. Stressful situations such as the loss of a loved one, a divorce, or a job loss can increase the risk of a heart attack.
- Cold weather can increase the risk of a heart attack. Cold weather can cause blood vessels to constrict, which can increase blood pressure and the risk of a heart attack.
When symptoms strike, act fast
If you think you may be having a heart attack, here are some steps you should take:
- Call 911 or your local emergency number. This is the fastest way to get medical help.
- Chew and swallow an aspirin if you have one. Aspirin can help to prevent blood clots from forming and can reduce the damage to your heart.
- Sit down and rest. Try to remain as calm as possible.
- Wait for the paramedics to arrive. They will be able to provide you with oxygen and other treatments that can help to reduce the damage to your heart.
- Follow the instructions of the paramedics. They will be able to give you more information on what you should do next.
Keep in mind that time is crucial when it comes to heart attacks, so it is important to act quickly if you think you may be having one. If you experience chest pain or discomfort, shortness of breath, or any of the other symptoms of a heart attack, don’t wait to seek help.
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If you think you may have a medical emergency, call 911 immediately, call your doctor, or go to the emergency room/urgent care.