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What Are the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack?

For many people, the first symptom of heart disease is a heart attack.  Therefore, every woman should know how to identify the symptoms of a heart attack and how to get immediate medical help.  Ideally, treatment should start within one hour of the first symptoms.  Recognizing the warning signs, and getting help quickly, can save your life.

Know the Warning Signs
Not all heart attacks begin with sudden, crushing pain, as is often shown on TV or in the movies.  Many heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort.  The most common warning signs for men and women are:

  • Chest discomfort.  Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes.  It may feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.  The discomfort can be mild or severe, and it may come and go.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body including one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.  May occur along with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs include nausea, light-headedness, or breaking out in a cold sweat.

As with men, women's most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort.  But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Get Help Quickly
If you think you, or someone else, may be having a heart attack, you must act quickly to prevent disability or death.  Wait no more than a few minutes—five at most—before calling 9-1-1.  It is important to call 9-1-1 because emergency medical personnel can begin treatment even before you get to the hospital.  They also have the equipment and training to start your heart beating again if it stops.  Calling 9-1-1 quickly can save your life.  Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 if your symptoms last up to five minutes.  If your symptoms stop completely in less than five minutes, you should still call your doctor.

You also must act at once because hospitals have clot-busting medicines and other artery-opening treatments and procedures that can stop a heart attack, if given quickly.  These treatments work best when given within the first hour after a heart attack starts.  Women tend to delay longer than men in getting help for a possible heart attack.  Many women delay because they don't want to bother or worry others, especially if their symptoms turn out to be a "false alarm."  But when you're facing something as serious as a possible heart attack, it is much better to be safe than sorry.  If you have any symptoms of a possible heart attack that last up to five minutes, call 9-1-1 right away.  When you get to the hospital, don't be afraid to speak up for what you need—or bring someone who can speak up for you.  Ask for tests that can determine if you are having a heart attack.  Commonly given tests include an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), a cardiac enzyme blood test, a nuclear scan, and a coronary angiogram (or arteriogram).  At the hospital, don't let anyone tell you that your symptoms are "just indigestion" or that you're overreacting.  You have the right to be thoroughly examined for a possible heart attack.  If you are having a heart attack, you have the right to immediate treatment to help stop the attack.

Plan Ahead
Nobody plans on having a heart attack.  But just as many people have a plan in case of fire, it is important to develop a plan to deal with a possible heart attack.  Taking the following steps can preserve your health—and your life:

  • Learn the heart attack warning signs "by heart."
  • Talk with family and friends about the warning signs and the need to call 9-1-1 quickly.
  • Talk with your health care provider about your risk factors for heart attack and how to
    reduce them.
  • Write out a "heart attack survival plan" that has vital medical information and keep it handy.
  • Arrange in advance to have someone care for your children or other dependents in an
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