Ask A Pharmacist

What are the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Our Customers asked…

I am at risk of a heart attack, and I want to make sure I know what signs/symptoms to look for in the case of emergency. How do I know when to call an ambulance? And is there anything I can do while I wait for an ambulance to arrive?

Our Pharmacists answered…

Everyone has seen the classic depiction of a heart attack in the movies or on TV. Usually, an older man or woman gasps, grabs for their chest, and falls to the ground as everyone around them panics and someone yells, “call 911!” Many of our customers wonder if this is really how it goes down in an everyday situation. The short answer is…sometimes. Typically, a heart attack begins with some kind of chest pain or pressure, but that’s not always the case. The most important thing to do in the case of yourself or someone close to you experiencing a cardiac event is to get help as soon as possible, and the best way to ensure you get help fast is to learn the following signs and symptoms to look for…

“The most important thing to do is to get help as soon as possible.”

• Chest Pain: This is the most common presentation of a heart attack. Pain will usually come in the form of pressure on the left side or center of the chest, as if someone is sitting on your breast bone and pressing it down into your heart, and it can come and go or last for an extended period of time. The pain can also feel like indigestion or heartburn, and can be mild or severe. If you experience anything more than just a fleeting episode of chest pain, don’t be stubborn and put off calling for help. There is no shame in asking for assistance when it may not be necessary, but there can be plenty of regret if you wait too long to act.

• Upper Body Discomfort: This symptom typically presents as either pain or numbness in the arms, shoulders, back, neck, jaw, and/or stomach (above the bellybutton). It is commonly concentrated on one side of the body, and is known to feel very similar to that “pins and needles” feeling you used to get as kid when you sat on your arm or leg for too long and cut off your circulation.

• Shortness of Breath: This is a simple one to look out for. Everyone knows what it feels like to try and “catch your breath,” but in a heart attack, it is a bit more pronounced. Someone having a cardiac event will be huffing and puffing, and no matter how hard they try, they will not be able to get their breathing under control. This is a major warning sign, not just in heart attacks, but in any type of heart blockage/heart failure exacerbation.

• Dizziness/Anxiety: As you would expect with these symptoms, many patients begin to feel very dizzy and weak. A heart attack occurs when blood flow is blocked and your body is not able to perfuse major organs of your body. One of those organs is the brain, so it is only logical that you might feel a bit dizzy during an event. Many patients also begin to experience a major bout of anxiety, which, when paired with shortness of breath, can only serve to make dizziness worse. If you happen to be with someone experiencing these symptoms, the best thing you can do is help to make sure they are taking slow, controlled, deep breaths and aid them in staying calm.

Ok, great. I know what I should be looking for and I won’t hesitate to call an ambulance at the first sign of a heart attack. Is there anything I can do while I wait so I don’t feel so helpless?

Of course! First and foremost, make sure the person having the event is laying down and is calm and quiet. Any exertion whatsoever can make things worse, so don’t have them speak any more than is absolutely necessary. If they (or you) are not allergic, have them chew an aspirin. 325mg is best, but 81mg is great too if that is what’s available. Aspirin helps to stop clots from building, and chewing the tablet can help it work much faster in the case of emergency. Try not to give any food or water, as this can exacerbate symptoms. Remain calm and wait for the ambulance to arrive.

The most important thing to remember is to be proactive, not reactive. Most damage to the cardiac muscle during a heart attack occurs during the first 60 minutes, so prompt action is imperative. Don’t be embarrassed to call for help. It is better to call an ambulance when it may not be necessary than to wait until it is too late. Heart attacks can be very scary, but health professionals are extremely prepared to handle them as long as they are able to get to the scene in a timely matter!