Minimizing Damage to the Heart During a Heart Attack

A heart attack is an emergency situation that requires immediate medical attention. Although you're probably most familiar with the symptom of crushing chest pain, a heart attack may present itself in a variety of ways, particularly in women. In fact, women tend to have more vague heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, and neck or back pain, which may delay a trip to the hospital and prevent prompt diagnosis and treatment.

It's essential to familiarize yourself with the possible heart attack symptoms. However, not all symptoms occur in every attack. So here are some basic guidelines for recognizing a heart attack— and what to do if you or someone you are with appears to be having a heart attack.

Heart Attack Signs and Symptoms

  • chest discomfort— uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or pain in the center of the chest
  • discomfort in other areas of the upper body— pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • shortness of breath— with or without chest discomfort
  • other signs— nausea, dizziness, lightheadedness, or cold sweat.
  • What to Do If Someone is Having a Heart Attack

    • Anyone experiencing one or more of the above symptoms that lasts more than 10 minutes should seek immediate help by calling 911 for an ambulance. Many ambulances carry emergency cardiac equipment, so treatment can begin on the way to the hospital.
    • If it's clear that an ambulance will not arrive within 20 to 30 minutes, someone should drive the patient to the nearest emergency room. The person experiencing the symptoms should not drive himself or herself to the hospital unless there is absolutely no other option.
    • Unless there's a specific reason not to, the person suffering heart attack symptoms should immediately chew an aspirin. This will help to dissolve the blood clot until stronger drugs can be administered at the hospital. The emergency personnel will need to know if an aspirin has been taken.
    • If someone you're with is experiencing heart attack symptoms, expect denial. It's normal for people with chest discomfort to deny the possibility of something as serious as a heart attack. Don't take no for an answer. Insist on prompt action.

    Publication Review By: Roger S. Blumenthal, M.D., and Simeon Margolis, M.D., Ph.D.

    Published: 01 Jul 2000

    Last Modified: 18 Sep 2015