A heart attack occurs when oxygen fails to reach the heart. The vital organ needs oxygen, contained in your blood, which travels through the arteries to the heart. But if an artery has a blockage in it, blood doesn’t reach the heart and the heart’s cells die, resulting in a heart attack.
A heart attack is a serious, life-threatening situation — but many people who witness someone experiencing the symptoms of a heart attack don’t treat it that way. It’s estimated that at least 200,000 people die in the United States every year from a heart attack — and that many of those deaths might have been prevented if someone had sought medical help immediately.
If you’re with someone who could possibly be having a heart attack, you should never delay in getting help, even if you only suspect there is a problem, says Carl F. Dennison, MD, a family doctor from Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. “Even if it’s a false alarm, go to the emergency room,” Dr. Dennison says. “That isn’t overreacting.”
Heart Attack Symptoms: Knowing What to Look For
The symptoms of a heart attack aren’t always obvious and often differ between men and women. Those symptoms can be subtle — perhaps one reason why some people don’t make it to an emergency room — or they can be very painful. Knowing what to look for can help you know when to take action for a friend, colleague, or loved one in distress:
- For men: The typical male symptom is a crushing pressure behind the breastbone, also called the sternum. That pressure, Dennison says, can radiate to your arms (often the left arm) and can go into the back, shoulder blades, and jaw. Men suffering a heart attack can break out in a sweat, and sometimes they will pass out.The onset of pain may be gradual and last several minutes or more. Sometimes the pain fades and comes back.
- For women: Women can have any of the same symptoms that men experience, but women often have more “atypical” symptoms, such as shortness of breath, and they may feel some indigestion. A woman having a heart attack may also experience pain in her jaw, and could feel a little faint.
These symptoms are not what most people think are indications of a heart attack, Dennison says. “Doctors and patients have to be very wary when it comes to heart symptoms with women,” he says. And for good reason: Heart disease kills more women than any other health condition.
Plan For the Possibility of a Heart Attack
It’s good to have a plan in place before a heart attack occurs, especially if the person has close relatives who have had heart attacks. According to Dennison, genetics play a big part in who has a heart attack and who doesn’t. One thing he highly recommends is a medical ID bracelet so that the attending medical team will know about allergies and other medical issues.
Chances of recovery are much better if the affected artery can be opened up within an hour-and-a-half of the heart attack, making it essential to get the person having the attack to the emergency room immediately. “By the time 90 minutes go by, you want to get that artery open,” Dennison says. “If you’re in a rural emergency room, and [the medical team can’t open the artery], you need clot-busting drugs.”
You Think It’s A Heart Attack?
Dennison says it’s extremely important for caregivers and friends to know the symptoms of a heart attack. Call 911 if you even suspect it’s a heart attack and here’s what you can do before help arrives:
- Stay close. Do not leave the person to find medications to give them — this can cause you to delay calling 911. It’s better to call for help first; emergency personnel can administer aspirin or any other appropriate treatments.
- Give a dose of nitro. If the person has been prescribed nitroglycerin in the past for heart disease, and the medication is close at hand, you can give them a dose.
- Go for comfort. Make the heart attack victim more comfortable by placing them in a comfortable position, loosening clothing, and staying close to provide reassurance.
- If needed, give CPR. Studies have shown that CPR given by a bystander can double or triple a victim’s chance of surviving cardiac arrest. If you are with someone who suddenly collapses, stops breathing, or is unresponsive, start performing hands-only CPR at 100 chest presses a minute with minimal interruptions. It’s just as effective as standard CPR. Learn more about how to perform CPR by visiting the American Heart Association’s Web site or by signing up for a CPR certification class in your area.
The one thing you shouldn’t do? Drive the person to the hospital yourself. Dennison advises: “If you go into the emergency room with your spouse, they will say, ‘Fill out a form and sit down.’ And you are sitting there, and the next thing that happens, your spouse is on the floor. With 911, you get right in there. If it’s [only] a panic attack, that’s fine. It could have been a heart attack.”