Symptoms of Heart Attack

Senior gardener having heart attack.
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The symptoms of an acute heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, or MI, can range from tell-tale chest pain to less obvious indications such as sweating, nausea, fatigue, and/or a sense of impending doom. Heart attacks also can occur without causing any symptoms at all and are only diagnosed after the fact—what's often referred to as a silent heart attack.

What's more, women tend to experience heart attacks differently than men do. Given the variability of symptoms that develop during an acute heart attack, it's important to know what the possibilities are and vital to not ignore any symptom, no matter how mild or innocuous it may seem. This is especially important for anyone who has or is at risk for coronary artery disease (CAD).

Common Symptoms

There's no such thing as a typical heart attack. However, there are certain signs and symptoms that are relatively typical and therefore are important to be aware of.

  • Chest pain (angina). Some heart attack patients who experience this classic symptom describe it as the worst pain they've ever felt. Others use words such as fullness, tightness, burning, or the sensation of a knot or weight in the chest. Whatever the nature of chest pain, it may begin gradually and come and go. Or it may come on suddenly, or simply feel like a dull, steady ache. Note that a change in the pattern of chest pain (when it tends to flare up and when it tends to ease up) is especially important to note, particularly pain that comes on after less and less activity.
  • Heavy pounding of the heart
  • Trouble breathing. During a heart attack, pressure in the chest can bring on the sensation of being suffocated.
  • Fatigue. A decrease in blood flow to the heart can deplete the body of energy and cause extreme tiredness. Although fatigue isn't alone isn't a heart attack symptoms, it definitely can be an important warning sign.
  • Overwhelming fear or sense of impending doom
  • Coughing up frothy sputum. This can be white or tinged with pink and is the result of a build-up of fluid in the lungs (that also can contribute to breathing difficulty).
  • A cold sweat. Profuse perspiration is a common response to stress and a facet of the fight or flight response that tells the brain the body is being threatened in some way.
  • Nausea and/or vomiting
  • Fainting (syncope). As a heart attack progresses and a portion of the heart becomes damaged, the loss of blood pressure can, in turn, cause loss of consciousness due to decreased blood flow to the brain. Sometimes this is the first sign a person is having a heart attack.
  • Stomach pain. When heart attack symptoms are centered here, they're often mistaken for heartburn.
  • A blue tint to the lips, hands, or feet—an indication that blood is not reaching those areas.

Women are more likely to experience atypical heart attack symptoms than men are, often leading them to delay getting medical treatment. Even doctors don't always recognize that a woman may be in the throes of myocardial infarction. This may be one reason women tend to have worse outcomes with heart attacks than men.

Complications

The short-term and long-term consequences of a heart attack are determined by how much of the heart muscle is damaged. For that reason, once an artery that supplies blood to the heart becomes blocked (the event that causes myocardial infarction to occur), it's critical to unblock it as quickly as possible in order to prevent as much damage as possible. A matter of minutes can make the difference between a full recovery, or permanent disability or death.

  • Increased risk of another heart attack. Once destroyed, the portion of the heart that's damaged will form scar tissue. This tissue cannot contract as healthy tissue does, and therefore it can prevent the heart from pumping normally, increasing the possibility of another heart attack. It also can mean a person has trouble with everyday functions, finding ti difficult to exert themselves, for example.
  • Death. According to a 2018 report by the American Heart Association, around 14 percent of people who have a heart attack will die as a result.

When to Go to the Hospital

It cannot be stressed enough that any type of chest pain or discomfort with or without other possible symptoms of a heart attack should be treated like a medical emergency. The same goes for milder symptoms that don't seem to have another cause or that seem odd or bring on a feeling of panic or anxiety.

Always listen to your intuition about any symptoms you may be feeling and head straight to the emergency department of the closest hospital or call 911.

Anyone who has one or more risk factors for CAD needs to pay close attention to any sudden, unusual or unexplained symptoms involving the upper half of the body.

A Word From Verywell

The key to surviving a heart attack is to recognize the possible symptoms of a heart attack and to take quick action if you experience any of them. Speak up once you are being seen by a medical professional. Do not hesitate to say "I think I'm having a heart attack." Doctors, nurses, and EMTs will not judge you if it turns out there is another reason for your symptoms. And if you happen to be right, you will receive the treatment you need to stop the heart attack and preserve as much heart tissue as possible. Most hospitals are geared up to deliver treatment rapidly once the diagnosis is clear, and most of the delay in beginning treatment is in the hands of the person having the heart attack. So, especially if you have risk factors for CAD, know what to look for, and be alert to any possible symptoms of a heart attack.

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