What are the early warning signs of a heart attack?

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, in the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, and approximately 805,000 people in the United States suffer this fate each year. Some heart attack symptoms are sudden and intense while others are subtle, but the consequences can be fatal, especially if you don’t get help right away. Look out for these early warning signs of a heart attack and call 911 right away if you’re experiencing the symptoms below. 

Early warning signs of a heart attack

For some, warning signs can occur months before a heart attack, and for others, they can be sudden. The American Heart Association lists the following as key symptoms: 

  • Chest discomfort typically in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes. It may go away and return. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, heaviness, or radiating pain.
  • Upper body discomfort, including pain in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath (with or without chest discomfort)
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

Symptoms sometimes vary between men and women. Dr. Zi-Jian Xu told Sutter Health that women “will experience some atypical symptoms as well, which may include fatigue, a general sense of unease, vague discomfort, back or abdominal pain and declining stamina.” Additionally, Dr. Nieca Goldberg says, “although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure.” Both types of symptoms can be experienced months before an actual heart attack occurs.

A heart attack can present suddenly or gradually. Sudden heart attacks mean a plaque deposit ruptures, triggering a chain of events and an unforeseen heart attack. Gradual heart attack presentation means an artery is getting narrower over time, which will cause warning symptoms. 

Heart attack risk and prevention

If you have any of the following conditions, you may be at a higher risk for a heart attack:

  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • A history of smoking
  • A history of heart disease or a previous heart attack
  • High blood pressure or high cholesterol
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Stress

If you have any concerns, talk to your doctor immediately. The good news? If heart disease is caught early, there are many lifestyle changes you can make to reduce your risk of major cardiovascular events. Dr. Goldberg’s top tips include: 

  • Scheduling an appointment with your healthcare provider to learn your personal risk for heart disease. Be sure to mention if you (or any family members) have any of the conditions listed above.
  • Quit smoking.
  • Get regular exercise.
  • Modify your diet.
  • Drink alcohol in moderation.

Learn the key signs of a heart attack. Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, have it checked out. Fast action can save your life. Call 911 immediately for appropriate help and support. 

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