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Heart Attack Signs

What are the early symptoms of a heart attack?

middle aged man grabbing chest while having a heart attack

A heart attack may cause various types of discomfort that are not generally perceived as "pain" and are not necessarily in the chest. The discomfort may: 

  • Feel like indigestion
  • May not be in a specific spot
  • Be felt in the chest, the inner arm (especially the left arm), the jaw or teeth, or other parts of the body
  • Get worse with activity and subside with rest
  • Come and go, and increase over time; each new pain recurs sooner, lasts longer and feels worse
  • Be accompanied by sweating, shortness of breath or flu-like symptoms

What should I do if I, or someone I care about, is having some of these symptoms?

Go straight to your nearest hospital ER. Immediate care can best be obtained by calling 911. Whatever you do, just don't waste valuable time. At the Emergency Department, a doctor and other specialists can examine you. They can determine if your symptoms are indeed signs of an early heart attack.

Do this right away. Don't wait.

A delay of even a few hours could literally make the difference between life and death, or the difference between no heart damage and severe damage.

Why is it important to be seen quickly?

If it's determined you are having a heart attack, doctors and nurses can be sure you get to the nearest hospital in an expedited matter to open blocked arteries.

What If I can’t convince a loved one to see a doctor?

Be Persistent! Many people experiencing early heart attack symptoms don't want to go to the hospital. What's worse, other well-meaning but misinformed people may agree, "It's probably nothing," in a mistaken attempt to be reassuring.

Be prepared to combat every excuse.

There are many, such as:

"It doesn't really hurt, the discomfort keeps going away by itself, so it can't be anything serious."

Not enough people know about early heart attack symptoms. Because you have read this, you now know more about them than most people. Share what you have learned. Stress how important it is to pay attention to these symptoms and get early medical attention when these symptoms occur.

"I haven't got time today; I'll go tomorrow” or “If it gets worse, I'll go."

If something is seriously wrong, taking a few hours to check it out now could add years to your life. That's a very wise investment of your time, no matter how busy you are.

"It’s nothing; I can handle it."

Some people don't want to overreact because they would feel foolish if they had no problem after all. Others don't want to appear weak or out of control. But it is smart, not foolish—a sign of strength, not weakness—to handle potential problems right away.

"I don't want to worry my spouse, my family, my friends."

Imagine how much worse your loved ones and friends would feel if they found out you had the chance to protect your health but didn't take it.

"I don't want to be the center of attention."

People don't ever really "die" of embarrassment but they can risk their lives in trying to avoid it. Immediate access to trained medical personnel may mean the difference between life and death. Immediate care can best be obtained by calling 911. Whatever you do, just don't waste valuable time.

"If I go to the ER and it isn't a heart attack, I’ll have wasted people's time."

No one in the ER would think that you've wasted their time—or yours either. If they do tests and the results come back normal, doctors will have a baseline to compare against if you have similar problems again. You may find out you have some other health problem that needs attention. Most important, you will know where to go and what to do if you or someone you care about ever has early heart attack symptoms.

What will happen to me at the hospital or Emergency Department?

Doctors can diagnose your symptoms within a few hours, if not sooner. They may ask you about your medical and family history, and your lifestyle. They will monitor your heart at rest and with activity. They can also look for telltale signs of heart attack in samples of your blood. Depending on the initial findings you may:

  • Begin receiving life-saving treatment right away
  • Be in consultation with your primary care physician or cardiologist
  • Be admitted to the hospital for further observation
  • Or, be transferred to another facility for further evaluation and treatment

Who should be concerned about heart attacks and early heart attack symptoms?

There is no "typical" heart attack victim. Women experience nearly the same number of heart attacks as men. People as young as 20 years old have heart attacks, even highly conditioned athletes in their prime. Sadly, some people have no idea they are at risk for a heart attack until it strikes.

However, some of the more “classic” symptoms can be experienced by both men and women:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing or pain in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • Discomfort or pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Lightheadedness, fainting, sweating, nausea
  • A feeling of indigestion

Women can also experience these symptoms:

These variations in symptoms are why heart attacks can be difficult to diagnose in women. If you think you may be having a heart attack, don’t dismiss your instincts. Seek prompt medical attention!



Some people have "risk factors" that make them more likely candidates for heart attack.

These include high-fat diets, being overweight, lack of exercise, smoking, diabetes, hypertension, and a family history of heart disease. But remember, the most important risk factor is the presence of any early heart attack symptoms. In fact, it is the only risk factor you can do something about right away and have a direct impact on whether you will have a serious heart attack or not.