Recognize Heart Attack Symptoms

Know the warning signs of a heart attack for both men and women.

heart attack symptoms

Everyone has seen the statistics: heart disease is the No. 1 killer in the United States, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). And you've also probably seen someone experience a heart attack -- either in person or on TV -- as they dramatically clutch their arm in intense pain. But not all heart attacks are alike.

Look for these Heart Attack Symptoms
While people are likely to recognize the signs of an intense, sudden heart attack, they may miss the more subtle signs. Frequently, heart attack symptoms start off mild with light pain and discomfort. People often don't recognize what's happening and wait too long before seeking help.

Everyone should know what a heart attack looks and feels like and what to do if you see someone having a heart attack. If you hire a senior care aide, make sure they are aware of these symptoms as well.

The common warning signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain and discomfort
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness

Understand Female Heart Attacks
While heart attacks are common in both genders, Eugenia Gianos, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the NYU Center for the Prevention of Cardiovascular Disease, says women often have atypical heart attack symptoms, which are more likely to be overlooked.

In addition to the above symptoms, women should look for the following signs of a heart attack:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or light-headedness

Even though campaigns like the American Heart Association's Go Red for Women have raised awareness of how common heart disease is in women, many women still do not expect to suffer a heart attack and are not aware of symptoms. They may think they simply have the flu or another not very serious condition.

Sandra A. Tsai, M.D., MPH, of the Stanford's Women's Heart Health Clinic, gives the example of a 62-year-old female patient who thought she had indigestion. "The physician diagnosed gastroesophageal reflux disease and asked her to take omeprazole, a common proton pump inhibitor," Dr. Tsai says. "Despite using this medication, her symptoms did not improve, but she did not let her doctor know because she felt it wasn't too serious. When her 'indigestion' worsened, she presented to the ER and was diagnosed with a heart attack."

Know What to Do during a Heart Attack
If you recognize the signs of a heart attack in yourself or someone you are caring for, get to the nearest emergency room immediately. "The earlier they are seen and diagnosed, the more likely it is that an artery can be opened to return blood flow to the heart muscle," says Dr. Gianos. "In this fashion, the heart muscle can be saved and reduce the chance of developing heart failure in the future." Acting fast is often the difference between life and death and can make a dramatic difference in your life in the future.

Andrea Lee is a freelance writer in Silicon Valley, California, and is a part-time college instructor and a full-time mom of two boys. Her work can be found here.

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