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Signs of a heart attack

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Many people think a heart attack is sudden, like a "movie" heart attack, where someone clutches her chest and falls over. But the truth is that many heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort. These feelings may even come and go. A heart attack is very serious and you should get to the hospital right away by calling 9-1-1. Learn what to expect at the hospital when you're having a heart attack.

For both women and men, the most common sign of a heart attack is pain or discomfort in the center of the chest. The pain or discomfort can be mild or strong. It can last more than a few minutes, or it can go away and come back. See the figure, "Signs of a Heart Attack," for a full list of heart attack signs.

Heart Attack Signs

Women are more likely than men to have the "other" common signs of a heart attack. These include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and pain in the back, neck, or jaw. Sometimes the signs of a heart attack happen suddenly. But they can also develop slowly, over hours, days, and even weeks before a heart attack occurs.

The more heart attack signs that you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Also, if you've already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same for another one. Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.

If you think you, or someone else, may be having a heart attack, wait no more than a few minutes — five at most — before calling 911. Do not drive yourself or let a friend drive you. You may need medical help on the way to the hospital. Paramedics are trained to treat you on the way to the emergency room.

Getting there quickly is very important. Treatments for opening clogged arteries work best within the first hour after a heart attack starts. Women are more likely than men to die of a heart attack. One reason is that women often have the less-common signs. This can lead to misdiagnosis. If you think you're having a heart attack, get emergency help right away. Don't let anyone tell you that you are overreacting or to wait and see. Ask for tests that can show if you're having a heart attack. It's better to be safe than sorry.

Cardiac arrest

A heart attack is not the same as cardiac arrest. In a heart attack, the heart does not usually stop beating. During cardiac arrest, the heart totally stops beating.

With cardiac arrest, the only way to restart the heart is with a defibrillator (dee-FIB-ruh-lay-tur), a machine that sends an electrical shock to the heart to restore normal rhythm. This treatment must be given as soon as possible. Call 911 and begin CPR immediately. The American Heart Association says that with "hands only" CPR, anyone can give lifesaving treatment to someone having cardiac arrest. Push hard and fast in the center of the chest and keep going until emergency personnel arrive. Do not give CPR for heart attack.

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More information on Signs of a heart attack

Read more from womenshealth.gov

  • Make the Call, Don't Miss a Beat - Not all women have chest discomfort or other common symptoms during their heart attack. Use this website to learn more about the symptoms of a heart attack in women and what to do if you think you are experiencing a heart attack.

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Content last updated: February 01, 2009.

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