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‘Am I Having a Heart Attack?’ The Steps You Can Take to Save Your Life

“Am I having a heart attack?” It may be the first thing that springs to mind if you experience symptoms like chest pain or extreme shortness of breath.

The first step in surviving a heart attack is being able to identify the symptoms so you can quickly seek help. If you think you are experiencing a heart attack, call 911 right away.

Learn more about services at the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute


What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when part of the heart doesn’t receive enough blood flow due to a blockage in one or more of your coronary arteries. The blockage is often due to coronary artery disease which occurs when plaque builds up along the artery walls.

People don’t always know they’re having a heart attack. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, one of every five heart attacks is “silent,” meaning there are few (if any) symptoms, but the heart is still damaged from a temporary blood flow blockage.

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Symptoms of a Heart Attack

It’s important to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack since delays in getting medical can lead to greater damage to your heart and can even be fatal. The faster you can get help, the better the chances of recovery.  Here’s what to look for:

  • Chest discomfort: Pain or pressure in the chest that comes and goes, possibly lasting a few minutes or longer.
  • Bodily discomfort: A sense of discomfort or pain in the stomach, jaw, arms, or back.
  • Shortness of breath: Trouble breathing, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Nausea, cold sweats, lightheadedness: These symptoms may occur with or without chest pain. Because they fit other medical diagnoses, it’s important to consider whether these symptoms may indicate a heart attack.

The symptoms of a heart attack often differ greatly for women and men. Women don’t always experience classic symptoms, like crushing chest or arm pain, and shortness of breath. Heart attack symptoms in women may be less dramatic and can include unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, and anxiety.

How to Survive a Heart Attack

It’s scary to think about having a heart attack. Whether you’re alone or with others, your first step should be to call 911. Emergency medical professionals not only get you to the hospital faster, but they can start treating you immediately.

Some doctors or emergency personnel may advise taking an aspirin to help thin the blood while waiting for the ambulance. Please note: Do not take aspirin in this situation without consulting medical personnel first, as aspirin can be harmful to someone having a stroke, or for those who have other medical issues.

Getting Treatment for a Heart Attack

Treatment for a heart attack varies depending on the situation. However, quickly restoring blood flow to the heart helps to lessen the damage. Here are some typical ways that can be done:

  • Clot-dissolving medicines: Emergency doctors may give you medicines to dissolve the clot in your vessel.
  • Angioplasty: This surgical technique involves threading a catheter into your blood vessels to open the blockage in the artery.
  • Stent: The doctor may insert a stent to keep a vessel open and strengthen it.
  • Bypass surgery: If the artery or arteries are too badly damaged, doctors may recommend bypass surgery to create a new pathway to the heart. This involves using blood vessels from another part of the body to restore blood flow to the heart.

Talk to your doctors about your risks for a heart attack based on family history and lifestyle, and learn how quitting smoking, diet, stress reduction, and exercise can help you avoid one.