A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when there is a blockage in a coronary artery, affecting the flow of oxygen-rich blood to your heart.
Common Questions & Answers
Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack
Symptoms of a heart attack can vary greatly from person to person. They’re likely to be more severe if you’re having a major heart attack, in which a blood clot completely blocks an artery leading to your heart.
- Chest pain (angina)
- Pain or discomfort in your jaw or neck
- Pain or discomfort in your arms, shoulders, or back
- Indigestion or sense of choking
- Shortness of breath
- Sweating, especially a cold sweat
- Nausea or vomiting
- Light-headedness or dizziness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
Sudden chest pain is the most common heart attack symptom, but not all people experience it. Some people have only mild symptoms that come on gradually.
Because a heart attack is a medical emergency, dial 911 right away if you experience symptoms that you believe are caused by one.
Heart Attack Symptoms in Men vs. Women
While heart attack symptoms can vary widely, men and women typically experience some general differences.
It’s especially important for women to look out for potential signs of a heart attack that might not fall under classic symptoms and to seek immediate medical treatment immediately if concerned.
Causes and Risk Factors of Heart Attacks
Blood flow to your heart can become completely cut off or severely reduced when a blood clot gets lodged in any artery that has been previously narrowed by a buildup of plaque.
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol or triglycerides
- Being male age 45 or older
- Being female age 55 or older
- Family history of heart disease
- Lack of physical activity
- Use of recreational stimulant drugs (including cocaine and amphetamines)
- Autoimmune diseases (such as rheumatoid arthritis and lupus)
You can lower your heart attack risk by not smoking, staying physically active, eating a heart-healthy diet and keeping your weight, blood pressure, and cholesterol under control.
How Is a Heart Attack Diagnosed?
When you arrive at the hospital, you’ll be asked about your symptoms and history of heart disease. You’ll also be monitored and given these initial tests to see if you’re having a heart attack:
- Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
- Blood tests
An ECG can detect whether electrical signals from your heart are abnormal, indicating a heart attack in progress or evidence of an old heart attack.
Blood tests can detect proteins or enzymes that enter your bloodstream when your heart is damaged from a heart attack.
- Chest X-ray
- Cardiac computerized tomography scan or magnetic resonance imaging
Types and Prognosis of Heart Attack
Heart attacks are divided into types based on severity.
STEMI Heart Attack This is the deadliest type of heart attack. It happens when a coronary artery is completely blocked.
STEMI is short for ST segment elevation myocardial infarction. This refers to changes that can be seen on an ECG or EKG.
Sometimes called a massive heart attack, a STEMI heart attack causes significantly reduced blood flow to the heart. As a result, areas of the heart muscle quickly begin to die.
NSTEMI Heart Attack This type of heart attack happens when blood flow to your heart through a coronary artery is severely restricted but may not be entirely blocked.
NSTEMI stands for non-ST segment elevation myocardial infarction.
Silent Heart Attack Some people have a heart attack with mild, brief symptoms or even no noticeable symptoms at all, which is why it’s known as a silent heart attack.
Although they don’t involve severe symptoms, silent heart attacks are far from harmless. They can cause permanent damage to the heart muscle.
Duration of a Heart Attack
If you experience symptoms that may indicate a heart attack for longer than five minutes, it’s important to seek emergency medical attention immediately.
Don’t delay treatment by waiting to see if your symptoms go away. Even if your symptoms let up or change, there may be ongoing damage to your heart.
The sooner treatment is administered, the less likely a heart attack is to cause significant or long-lasting damage to your heart muscle.
Treatment and Medication Options for a Heart Attack
Once you arrive at a hospital after experiencing heart attack symptoms, doctors will confirm a heart attack through a combination of heart monitoring, blood tests, and imaging tests.
You may be started right away on an intravenous (IV) clot-busting drug, which will help dissolve the blood clot that caused your heart attack.
More commonly, you will undergo a procedure to open up your blocked artery and keep it open, known as coronary angioplasty and stenting.
Thrombolytics Known as clot-busting drugs, these medications help dissolve blood clots that are blocking blood flow to your heart.
Antiplatelet Drugs Also known as platelet aggregation inhibitors, these drugs prevent new clots and stop existing ones from growing.
Other Blood Thinners You may receive drugs such as heparin?to reduce the formation of blood clots.
Nitroglycerin This drug helps your blood vessels widen (dilate) and can help improve blood flow to your heart, in addition to reducing chest pain (angina).
Beta Blockers These drugs help relax your heart muscle and lower blood pressure, potentially limiting heart muscle damage.
ACE Inhibitors These drugs also help lower blood pressure, meaning your heart has to work less hard.
Pain Relievers If you’re in pain, you may be given morphine or another drug.
Invasive and Surgical Procedures
In addition to treatment with drugs, you may need to undergo a procedure to restore blood flow to your heart:
Coronary Angioplasty and Stenting This common procedure involves inserting a long, narrow tube (catheter) into your coronary artery, inflating a tiny balloon in the area of a blockage, and leaving a mesh tube (called a stent) to keep it open.
Coronary Artery Bypass Surgery For more severe artery blockages, you may need to undergo surgery in which blood vessels are sewn around a blocked artery. Ideally this is done a few days after your heart attack, but it may also need to be done more urgently.
Prevention of a Heart Attack
You can help prevent a heart attack by managing certain risk factors and making healthy lifestyle choices.
Your doctor may also prescribe certain medications to reduce your heart attack risk. These may work by reducing your blood’s ability to clot, lowering your blood pressure, or improving your cholesterol levels.
Exercise and Heart Attack Prevention
One possible explanation for this connection is that when you exercise a lot, extra blood vessels may grow around the heart. Known as collateral blood vessels, they provide a way for blood to flow even if an artery gets blocked.
Complications of a Heart Attack
Certain complications may arise after a heart attack, depending on the location and extent of damage to your heart.
Sudden Cardiac Arrest
An electrical disturbance can cause your heart to stop beating altogether. This condition can be fatal without immediate treatment.
Damage to your heart from a heart attack or coronary heart disease can make the muscle weaker, impacting its ability to pump enough blood. This may be a temporary or permanent problem.
A heart attack may damage one of the four valves that keep blood flowing in the correct direction through your heart.
A heart attack can be a scary, stressful, life-changing event.
Life After a Heart Attack
A heart attack is often a devastating event that severely disrupts your life. Still, many people find ways to live a full, enjoyable life after having one.
Some people experience their heart attack as a wake-up call that they need to make certain lifestyle changes.
Eating habits may need to be changed after a heart attack, along with lifestyle factors like stress and physical activity.
Recovering from a heart attack can be physically and emotionally taxing, with some people experiencing depression stemming from their limitations.
It’s important to reach out for any help you need to deal with recovery-related challenges.
Can You Have Sex After a Heart Attack?
A heart attack can take a toll on your romantic relationships and sex life, but that doesn’t mean you should give up on sex afterward.
It may take some recovery time before you can resume sexual activity, and you may need to make certain modifications to your sexual practices.
Impaired sexual function is common after a heart attack, yet many people are reluctant to discuss this problem with their doctor. You may improve your sexual function by working on your overall fitness and endurance.
Research and Statistics: How Many People Have Heart Attacks?
About 805,000 people in the United States have a heart attack each year. Out of these, about 605,000 are the person’s first heart attack, while 200,000 are in people who have previously had one.
Black American Communities and Heart Attacks
While the overall risk of heart disease varies among different racial and ethnic groups in the United States, there is less data on heart attacks specifically.
Related Conditions of Heart Attack
Heart attacks are usually caused by CAD, which can lead to these other symptoms and events that are sometimes mistaken for a heart attack.
Angina (Chest Pain)
Resources We Love
The following organizations and websites provide information about heart attacks and heart disease, along with support options and ways to get involved in advocacy.
The AHA is the leading resource in the United States for all things related to cardiac health. Its website’s section on heart attacks offers advice on prevention, what to do if you or someone you love has one, and rehabilitation options.
This national patient-centered organization is dedicated to helping women with heart disease. Its website is full of information on preventing, diagnosing, and treating heart disease in women, and boasts nearly 100 patient support groups in 30 states.
Connect with fellow heart attack survivors in online forums supported by the AHA. You can share your story or get answers to your questions about managing heart health. The AHA also offers online support for caregivers helping out a loved one who has had a heart attack.
This page from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services offers articles and checklists on healthy lifestyle choices, doctor's appointments, talking with a loved one about heart health, and grocery shopping for heart-healthy foods.
Additional reporting by Ashley Welch
Editorial Sources and Fact-Checking
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