Heart attack warning signs 

 September 2023 

Knowing the warning signs of a heart attack can save a life - perhaps even your own.

Like any muscle, the heart needs a continuous supply of blood to work effectively. It receives this from blood vessels called coronary arteries. A heart attack occurs when the supply of blood to your heart is suddenly blocked.

The blockage is usually due to a build-up of fatty deposits, cholesterol and other substances in the walls of your coronary arteries. Over time, this build-up hardens into cholesterol and calcium plaques. The plaque can rupture and cause a blood clot which blocks your artery, thus obstructing the flow of blood to your heart. Heart attack is also known as myocardial infarction.

Heart attack symptoms differ from person to person. Some people have mild symptoms. Others have severe symptoms. And some people have no symptoms at all, or a silent heart attack.

Although chest pain or discomfort is the most common heart attack warning sign, there can be other symptoms too. Some people may experience one, or a combination of symptoms, and symptoms can also differ between men and women.

The most common symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms that can spread to the neck, jaw or back
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Suddenly feeling dizzy, faint, light-headed or anxious
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Cold sweats
  • Feeling unusually tired
  • Heartburn, indigestion or abdominal pain
  • Looking pale

Women are more likely to have silent heart attacks or experience less common and less intense symptoms that can go ignored. Some of the heart attack signs in women include:

  • Chest pain that feels more like burning, throbbing or tightness
  • A feeling of indigestion or upper tummy pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Tightness or discomfort in the arms
  • Back or jaw pain
  • Sweating or breaking out in a cold sweat 

Certain lifestyle factors are shown to increase your chances of having a heart attack.
These include:

  • Smoking
  • An unhealthy diet high in saturated fat, salt, and added sugar 
  • Not getting enough physical activity 
  • Having high blood pressure 
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Being overweight or obese
  • A previous heart attack
  • Family history of early heart disease: for example, a father or brother diagnosed before age 55 or a mother or sister diagnosed before age 65.

The best way to lower your risk of having a heart attack is to make some positive changes to your lifestyle such as:

  • Quitting smoking
  • Eating a healthy diet 
  • Periodic visits to your doctor to help manage your cholesterol and blood pressure 
  • Staying physically active and exercising regularly
  • Maintaining a healthy weight
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Reducing stress and looking after your mental wellbeing
  • Getting your heart screened once a year

About half of all heart attacks are mistaken for less serious problems such as heartburn or a pulled muscle, and can therefore increase your risk of dying from coronary artery disease. Early treatment is imperative to reduce damage to heart muscle, and works best when administered within an hour of the first symptoms of a heart attack.

If you suspect you or someone you are with may be having a heart attack, seek medical help right away. Don’t hesitate to call emergency services. The faster you act, the better the chance of survival. 

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