Few health-related experiences are as frightening as a heart attack. The symptoms can come on suddenly, and life can be on the line if help isn’t found quickly. Yet heart attacks can be treated successfully, and many thousands of people go on to lead healthy, productive lives after having one.
Even better, factors that put you at risk for a heart attack can often be recognized and changed, thus preventing it from occurring in the first place. The key is to know and recognize the warning signs as early as possible and take the right steps to prevent or treat the heart problem.
Heart Attack Warning Signs
Heart attacks can be tricky, as the signs and symptoms vary widely. The Mayo Clinic notes that some people have mild pain, while others experience severe pain. Symptoms can also come on suddenly or slowly. Some people even start to feel warning signs days or weeks in advance. It’s also possible to have a heart attack without showing any symptoms at all (known as a silent myocardial infarction).
The key with a potential heart attack is to err on the side of caution. If you suspect that you or a love one might have the warning signs of a heart attack, but you aren’t entirely sure, seek immediate medical help. It’s better to see a doctor and be wrong than be right and have done nothing.
Here’s what you want to look for:
Chest discomfort. As you’d expect, problems with the chest are the most typical signs of a heart attack, but the American Heart Association (AHA) notes that how it actually feels can be different for different people. For some, it may feel like pressure or squeezing in the center of the chest. For others, it may manifest as mild or severe pain. These sensations can also be persistent or come and go intermittently.
When it comes to chest pain, the American Academy of Family Physicians adds that women are more likely than men to experience symptoms other than chest pain when having a heart attack. While chest pain is still quite common among women having heart attacks, they should also pay close attention to the following symptoms, as well.
Upper body symptoms. In some instances, the pressure, discomfort or pain of a heart attack can extend beyond the chest to other areas of the body. Most often, these symptoms impact the upper body. The most likely areas to be inflicted by pain, pressure or achiness related to a heart attack include the back, neck, one or both arms, the jaw or the stomach.
Shortness of breath. If unexpected shortness of breath occurs and lasts more than a few seconds, this is another symptom that should heed a call to action. The AHA notes that this may accompany chest pain, or it can also occur without the presence of any chest-related symptoms.
A combination of other symptoms. Various other symptoms can indicate the start of a heart attack, as well. For example, if you unexpectedly break out in a cold sweat or experience lightheadedness, dizziness or weakness, these are all warning signs. You may also experience a rapid or irregular heartbeat, or anxiety. Digestive symptoms such as a feeling of fullness, nausea and vomiting, indigestion or a choking sensation are also possible. These symptoms may occur with or without the other early warning signs on this list.
Female-centric symptoms. While women can experience the same heart attack symptoms as men, they may be more likely to experience some unique sensations. These include pain radiating out from the chest to the arm or jaw, upper back or shoulder pain, lightheadedness or fatigue that lasts for several days.
Heart Attack Risk Factors
In addition to the warning signs of an ongoing heart attack, there are a number of indicators and lifestyle factors that can put you at a significantly greater risk of having one. If you have any of these early warning signs, there is some good news: It’s usually not too late to make changes to prevent a future heart attack.
Risk factors for a heart attack include:
- Medical markers of heart problems. There are several heart-health indicators that your doctor can determine during a routine checkup that affect your risk for a future heart attack. Some of the most concerning include high blood pressure, high cholesterol or high triglyceride levels. If you have any of these, talk to your doctor about lifestyle changes and medications that might help lower your risk.
- Obesity. Being overweight or obese is another major heart attack indicator and is also closely tied to the other symptoms mentioned. However, losing as little as 10 percent of body weight through diet and exercise can often make a big difference in lowering that risk.
- Diabetes or metabolic syndrome. Diabetes often causes high blood sugar levels, and metabolic syndrome refers to having high blood sugar, high blood pressure and high body weight. Metabolic syndrome specifically can double your risk of heart disease.
- Smoking. Of all the preventable risk factors for heart attacks, smoking is one of the most significant. Not only does it greatly increase the chances of having a heart attack, it also interacts with other factors to increase your risk for heart disease. Granted it's a lot easier to say you’re going to quit than to actually quit, but this is one step you really should take to preserve your future heart health.
- Drinking alcohol. Another preventable risk factor for heart attacks is excessive alcohol use. Consuming too much alcohol can increase your blood pressure and triglyceride levels. Alcohol consumption should be limited to one drink a day for women and two drinks a day for men.
- Stress. Research has pretty clearly shown the link between stress levels and heart attacks. Specifically, people who respond poorly to high-stress situations are at a greater risk. They also may be more likely to engage in other harmful behaviors, like smoking and alcohol use. If high stress is an issue that you struggle with, you may want to talk to your doctor about potential stress-reduction strategies.
- Diet and Exercise. Aside from contributing to your overall body weight, diet and exercise also play a key role in heart attack risk. Specifically, an unhealthy diet of fatty, greasy or sugary foods can contribute to blood cholesterol levels. Being inactive further contributes to that risk. Fortunately, both scenarios are preventable with lifestyle changes.
- Family History. People with parents or siblings with heart disease are more likely to develop heart disease themselves and have an increased risk for a heart attack.
Recognize the signs to prevent tragedy
There’s no question that the risk of a heart attack is certainly a scary situation for anyone who faces it. But if it happens to you or a loved one, recognizing the signs and taking quick action are key to saving a life, even your own. And if your lifestyle choices are putting you at risk of a future heart attack, then it’s not too late to make changes and reduce that risk. Your heart — and your loved ones — will thank you later.
- About Heart Attacks, American Heart Association, 2016. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/about-heart-attacks
- Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction), Cleveland Clinic, 2019. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/diseases/16818-heart-attack-myocardial-infarction
- Heart Attack, Mayo Clinic, 2019. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106
- Warning Signs of a Heart Attack, American Heart Association, 2016. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack
- Heart Attack, American Academy of Family Physicians, 2019. https://familydoctor.org/condition/heart-attack/
- Understanding Your Risks to Prevent a Heart Attack, American Heart Association, 2016. https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/understand-your-risks-to-prevent-a-heart-attack
- Heart Disease Behavior, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/behavior.htm