Surviving a Heart Attack: What You Need to Know

Don’t delay in calling 911
Concerned individual sitting on a couch with their hand to their chest

If you or someone you love experiences the telltale symptoms of a heart attack, you should get to the emergency room as soon as possible. Don’t delay. It could mean a better recovery and quality of life for the future, not to mention, the difference between life and death.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) shares that “Every year, about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack and of these, 605,000 are a first heart attack.” This is why it’s important to have a plan of action in place when symptoms become noticeable.

“Survival depends on recognizing the symptoms and taking immediate action,” says cardiologist John Mansour, MD. “There is no time to waste when it comes to a heart attack.”

How to prepare for a heart attack

“You can’t predict when a heart attack will happen, to you, or to a loved one, but there are proactive steps you can take to be ready,” says Dr. Mansour.

Understanding and paying attention to risk factors for a heart attack is the first step.

“The first step in preparation is prevention,” says. Dr. Mansour. “Most people are aware that if they live an unhealthy lifestyle, their chances of a heart attack are greater.”

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Stop smoking. Start eating healthier and implementing regular exercise into your daily routine, he says. “In terms of exercise, the biggest benefit comes when you go from doing nothing to doing something — even if it’s just walking. You don’t have to run a marathon to make your heart healthier.

“It’s also important to monitor your heart health on a regular basis, especially if you have a family history of heart disease,” he adds. Knowing that heart disease runs in your family could give you a leg up in preparation for a heart attack and for future recovery.

Other ways to prepare

  • Know the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack.
  • Know the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and heart attack.
  • Always have aspirin on-hand in an accessible medicine cabinet or drawer, in your car, or bag/purse.
  • Learn CPR for loved ones who are at risk.
  • Ask your doctor about nitroglycerin if you are a heart patient.
  • Make family and friends aware of warning signs and not hesitating to call 911.

Why you shouldn’t delay getting to the emergency room

It may not be realistic to get to the emergency room within a few minutes of experiencing heart attack symptoms, but it is critical to take immediate action.

“When you don’t call 911 immediately or get to the hospital quickly, you risk death. Time is muscle. The longer you wait, the more damage is done to your heart,” Dr. Mansour says.

Surprisingly, many people delay in calling 911 for these reasons:

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  • Embarrassment or fear of looking silly.
  • Denial or confusion.
  • Responsibilities, like not wanting to “stop their lives” or burden others with worry.
  • Expectation of a dramatic “chest-clutching” event to signal a definite heart attack.
  • Mistaken symptoms for heartburn.

Many patients — more than 25% — wait more than six hours to go to the emergency room after symptoms begin. Don’t add to this statistic!

A reminder checklist for heart attack symptoms

Symptoms will vary from person to person, but these are the most common symptoms of a heart attack to watch out for:

  • Sudden, increasing chest pain and angina.
  • Pain spreading from the jaw, throat, arm, back or upper stomach.
  • Profuse sweating or cold sweats.
  • Nausea/vomiting.
  • Dizziness.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feelings of indigestion/heartburn.
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeats.
  • Extreme fatigue/weakness.
  • Heavy, “elephant-sitting-on-your-chest” feeling.

Symptoms also vary by gender. Many women don’t experience chest pain at all — only neck, jaw or back pain, among other symptoms. “Women usually wait four times longer than men to go to the emergency room because they don’t feel any chest pain,” says Dr. Mansour.

Any symptoms listed above should never be ignored. Even if you are not having a heart attack, it’s better to be safe than sorry and call 911. Your best chance of survival depends on how quickly you and your loved ones act.

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