How to Survive a Heart Attack

Each year over 700,000 people suffer heart attacks in the United States; of these people, around 120,000 die. Heart attacks and other forms of heart disease are the leading cause of death among Americans and, indeed, the number one killer around the world.  About half of heart attack deaths occur in the first hour, before the victim reaches a hospital. Thus, if you experience a heart attack, it is essential to act quickly in order to maximize your chances of survival. Notifying emergency services within the first five minutes of a heart attack, and receiving medical attention within the first hour, can mean the difference between life and death. If you believe you may be suffering a heart attack, seek emergency medical attention at once. Otherwise, read on to learn strategies to survive a heart attack.

Assessing the Signs of a Heart Attack

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1. Pay attention to chest pain. Mild chest pain or discomfort in the chest, rather than sudden, crushing pain, is the most common symptom of a heart attack. The pain may feel like a heavy weight on your chest, a squeezing or tightness around the chest, or indigestion/heartburn.

  • Moderate to severe pain or discomfort in the chest usually occurs on the left side or in the center of the chest, with the pain persisting for several minutes; the pain may also recede and then return.
  • During a heart attack, you may feel pain, pressure, a squeezing sensation or a feeling of fullness in your chest.
  • Chest pains may spread to other parts of the body, including the neck, shoulders, back, jaw, teeth, and abdomen.

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2. Be aware of other symptoms. Chest pain may be accompanied by other symptoms that indicate you are experiencing a heart attack; however, many people, in fact, have a heart attack with little to no chest pain. If you experience the following symptoms – particularly if they accompany chest pain – seek medical attention:

  • Shortness of breath. Some unexplained difficulty with breathing can occur before or simultaneously with chest pain, but may also be the only sign you are having a heart attack. Panting for breath or the need to take long, deep breaths may be warning signs that you are having a heart attack.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach. Stomach pains, nausea, and vomiting sometimes accompany a heart attack, and can be mistaken for the flu.
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness. A feeling that the world is moving or spinning, or that you might faint (or do faint), can be warning signs of a heart attack.
  • Anxiety. You may feel anxious, have a sudden panic attack, or experience unexplained feelings of impending doom.

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3. Know the signs of a heart attack in women. The most common sign of a heart attack for both men and women is chest pain. However, women (and some men) may suffer a heart attack with only mild chest pains, or without experiencing chest pain at all. Women – as well as elderly people and people with diabetes– are also more likely to experience the following symptoms of a heart attack, with or without chest pain:

  •  Women may experience chest pain that does not conform to what is perceived as the sudden, crushing pain of a heart attack. This pain may appear and recede, begin slowly and increase in severity over time, ease with rest and increase during physical exertion.
  • Pain in the jaw, neck or back are common signs of a heart attack, particularly for women.
  • Pain in the upper abdomen, cold sweats, nausea, and vomiting are more common in women than men. These signs can be misinterpreted as pointing to heartburn, indigestion or the flu.
  • Breaking out in cold, nervous sweat is a common symptom in women. Usually, this will feel more like stress or anxiety, rather than normal sweating following exercise or other physical activities.
  • Anxiety, unexplained panic attacks and a sense of impending doom are more common symptoms for women than men.
  • Sudden, unusual or unexplained fatigue, weakness and lack of energy are common signs of a heart attack in women. These symptoms can last a short period of time or persist for several days.
  • Shortness of breath, lightheadedness and fainting.

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4. React quickly to symptoms. Most heart attacks build up slowly, rather than suddenly strike the victim; many people do not realize they are experiencing a major medical emergency. If you or somebody you know experiences one or more of the common signs of a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately.

  •  Speed is critical. Around 60% of deaths from a heart attack occur within the first hour. On the other hand, those that reach a hospital within the first hour and a half have a higher chance of survival than those who arrive later.
  • Many people mistake the signs of a heart attack for other ailments, including heartburn, the flu, anxiety, and more. It is important that you don’t ignore or downplay symptoms that may point to a heart attack, but seek help immediately.
  • Symptoms can be quite different from person to person, may appear in mild or severe forms, and may appear and recede and reappear over several hours. Some people can suffer a heart attack after showing only mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all.

Getting Help During a Heart Attack

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1. Seek medical attention immediately. About 90% of people who suffer a heart attack survive if they arrive at the hospital alive. Many heart attack fatalities occur because victims fail to receive swift medical attention, and their failure to do so is often caused by their own hesitation to act. If you feel any of the above symptoms, don’t try to wait them out. Call 9-1-1 (or your country’s equivalent emergency telephone number) to get help immediately.

  •  While it’s true that the symptoms could be harmless if you are indeed suffering a heart attack your life depends on getting medical attention as quickly as possible. Don’t be afraid of being embarrassed or wasting the doctors’ or paramedics’ time – they will understand.
  • Emergency medical personnel can begin treatment as soon as they arrive, so calling for emergency assistance is the fastest way to get help during a heart attack.
  • Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. If medical personnel can’t reach you in good time, or if there are no other emergency options, have a family member, friend or neighbor drive you to the closest emergency room.

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2. Make people aware that you may be having a heart attack. If you’re around family or out in public when you believe you may suffering from a heart attack, let people know. If your situation worsens, your life may depend on someone giving you CPR, and you’re more likely to get effective help if people know what’s going on.

  •  If you’re on the road, stop the car and flag down a passing motorist, or call 9-1-1 and wait if you are somewhere where paramedics can quickly reach you.
  • If you’re on an airplane, notify a flight attendant immediately. Commercial airlines carry medication on board that may be helpful, and the flight attendant can also find out if there’s a doctor on the plane and perform CPR if necessary. Pilots are also required to detour to the nearest airport if a passenger is having a heart attack.

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3. Minimize activity. If you cannot get to medical attention quickly, try to remain calm and do as little as possible. Sit down, rest and wait for emergency medical services to arrive. Exertion can strain your heart and can worsen the damage caused by a heart attack.

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4. Take an aspirin or nitroglycerin, if appropriate. Many people can benefit from taking an aspirin at the onset of a heart attack. You should take one tablet immediately and chew it slowly while you wait for emergency personnel to arrive. If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin, take one dose at the onset of a heart attack and call emergency services.

  • Aspirin may worsen some conditions, however, so ask your doctor today whether this is an appropriate course of action

Recovering from a Heart Attack

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1. Follow professional medical advice after the heart attack. When you survive a heart attack, it is essential to follow your doctor’s advice for recovery, both in the days immediately following the occurrence and over the long term.

  • There is a good chance you will be prescribed medication to reduce blood clotting. You will most likely take this medication for the rest of your life.

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2 .Be aware of changes in your emotions and outlook. It is quite common for people who have survived a heart attack to experience bouts of depression. Depression can stem from embarrassment, self-doubt, feelings of inadequacy, guilt over previous lifestyle choices, and fear or uncertainty about the future.

  • A supervised physical recovery program, renewed social connections with family, friends and co-workers, and professional psychological help are some ways in which survivors can return to normal life after a heart attack.

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3. Know the risks of a second heart attack. If you have a heart attack you are at a higher risk of a second heart attack; nearly one-third of the heart attacks in the United States each year happen to people who have survived a previous attack. The following factors will put you at an even higher risk of a second heart attack:

  • Smoking. If you smoke, there is almost twice the chance that you will have a heart attack.
  • High cholesterol. An unhealthy cholesterol level is one of the most important contributors to a heart attack and other heart complications. Cholesterol can be especially dangerous when it occurs in conjunction with high blood pressure, diabetes, and smoking.
  • Diabetes, particularly if not controlled properly, can increase the chance of a heart attack.
  • Obesity. Being overweight can raise your cholesterol and blood pressure levels, and lead to heart complications. Additionally, obesity can lead to diabetes, another factor that puts you at risk of a second heart attack.

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4. Make changes in your lifestyle. Medical complications from an unhealthy lifestyle put you at a greater risk of a second heart attack. Inactivity, obesity, high cholesterol, blood sugar and blood pressure, stress, and smoking all increase the risk of a heart attack.

  • Reduce your consumption of saturated and trans fats. Aim to avoid foods that contain partially hydrogenated oils.
  • Lower your cholesterol. This can be accomplished through diet, regular exercise or a cholesterol medication as prescribed by your doctor. A good way to lower your cholesterol is to eat oily fish, which contain the omega-3 fatty acid.
  • Cut down on alcohol consumption. Only drink the recommended daily amount of alcohol, and avoid binge drinking.
  • Reduce your weight. A healthy body mass index is between 18.5 and 24.9.
  • Exercise. Consult with your doctor on how you can start an exercise program. A supervised cardiovascular exercise program is ideal but not necessary. With your doctor’s advice you can work out a program of cardiovascular exercise (e.g., walking, swimming) based on your current level of fitness and focused on reasonable, achievable targets over time (e.g., walk around the block without getting “short-of-breath”).
  • Stop smoking. Quitting smoking immediately can reduce your risk of heart attack by half.