What to know about a heart attack

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Every year, about 735,000 Americans have a heart attack; 71 percent of these are first-time heart attacks. It pays to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of a heart attack because the faster you receive care, the better your chances are for a successful recovery.

How You Know When You are Having a Heart Attack
Heart attacks are caused by loss of blood flow to the heart muscle from a blockage in the vessels that provide blood to the heart. A heart attack can present itself in several ways:
  • Sudden, severe and debilitating chest pains 
  • Chest pains that gradually increase over several hours
  • Mild chest pain symptoms that reoccur over several hours or days

Anyone who experiences the following common heart attack signs and symptoms should seek treatment:
  • A feeling of pressure or tightness in your chest or arms 
  • Experiencing pressure, pain or tightness in your neck, jaw or back
  • Unexplained nausea, indigestion, heartburn or stomach pain
  • Being unable to catch your breath
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat
  • Feeling tired or fatigued
  • Experiencing sudden dizziness during normal activity

While heart attack symptoms vary from person to person, often, men and women present with different symptoms. While some people will have a mild pain, others may experience severe pain and still others may have no pain at all leading up to the event. Although a heart attack can strike suddenly, people often have warning signs and symptoms several hours to several weeks in advance, but are unaware of the signs.

How to Tell if You are at Risk of a Heart Attack
The risk factors for heart attack come in two forms — those that are uncontrollable and those that you can control.

Uncontrollable Risk Factors
  • Age: According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH), men over the age of 45 and women over the age of 55 (after menopause) are at higher risk of heart attack.
  • Family: If there is a history of heart disease in your family, you are at a higher risk.
  • Menopause: If you are post-menopausal, your risk of heart attack is elevated.
  • Race: If you are of African, American Indian or Mexican descent, you are more likely to have heart disease than a person of Western European descent.

Factors within your Control
  • Smoking
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood pressure
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Uncontrolled diabetes
  • Stress

What You Should Do if You Think You are Having a Heart Attack

Every second counts. Early attention is the key to saving your life in the event of a heart attack. You need to be seen in an emergency room as soon as possible.

As much as 85 percent of the damage to your heart takes place in the first two hours of a heart attack, so by taking action immediately you can help prevent damage and avoid sudden death. Whether you are experiencing the early symptoms or you are a witness to someone else showing these symptoms, you can become an early cardiac caregiver by insisting on medical attention.