Be Prepared for Heart Attack

Many people who are having a heart attack—even those who have had one before—wait too long to seek medical help. This delay may increase the extent of permanent heart damage and the chances of heart failure or death. Seek treatment immediately, even if symptoms subside or you're not sure whether it’s a heart attack.

You can save time during a cardiac emergency by planning ahead. Here are some ways to prepare for a heart attack and possibly increase your chances of survival.

1. Know the warning signs
Not everyone who has a heart attack experiences the same symptoms, and some people have no symptoms at all. There are, however, some common ones you should know:

  • Chest discomfort (pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain)
  • Pain radiating to the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Other symptoms, for example, sweating, nausea, vomiting or lightheadedness

2. Know what to do

If you experience symptoms of a heart attack:

  • Call 911 immediately. Because emergency personnel can begin treatment before you reach the hospital, transport to the hospital in an ambulance is the best way to receive prompt care. If calling 911 is not possible, have someone drive you to the hospital. Do not drive yourself to the hospital unless you have absolutely no other alternative.
  • While waiting for help to arrive, chew a regular-dose aspirin to help prevent blood clots. Take with a glass of water.
  • If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin tablets or spray for angina, take one to three doses to see whether symptoms are relieved.
  • Lie down, breathe deeply and slowly, and try to stay calm.

3. Develop an action plan
If you are at high risk for a heart attack, consider some of the following suggestions:

  • Think what you would do if you had a heart attack in various situations, such as at home or while driving.
  • Decide who would take care of any dependents. Make sure these backup people are willing to help out in an emergency.
  • Write down a list of medications you are currently taking, medications you are allergic to, your doctors' phone numbers (both during and after office hours) and contact information for a friend or relative. Keep copies of this information in several places, such as at home, at work, in your car and in your wallet or purse.
  • Give instructions to your family and friends. Tell them the warning signs of a heart attack and what to do if you experience these signs. Encourage them to take a cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) class so that they can provide assistance if your breathing or heart stops before the ambulance arrives.
  • Keep a bottle of aspirin in your home, car, office and toiletry bag. Always have your cell phone with you in case you need to call for help.

Publication Review By: Gary Gerstenblith, M.D., and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

Published: 03 Jul 2013

Last Modified: 15 Jan 2015