Dr. Mersad Alimoradi 04 Mar 2022

For the heart to function properly, the heart muscle needs to receive a sufficient amount of blood. A heart attack, also called a myocardial infarction, happens when one of the arteries feeding the heart muscles becomes blocked, causing tissue death.

Almost 85% of cardiovascular disease-related deaths are caused by either a heart attack or a stroke. But more than 90% of people survive myocardial infarctions, and a lot of them continue living normally.

The sooner the treatment starts, the better your chances of surviving a heart attack. So, it is important to seek medical attention immediately if you suspect you're having a myocardial infarction.

We’ve put together a list of the top things you need to know about heart attacks. Early signs of myocardial infarction, how long a heart attack lasts, the dos and don’ts during heart attacks, and much more. Read on!

1. What are the first signs of a heart attack?

Most heart attacks start with slight chest discomfort or pain, known as angina. This can feel like uncomfortable tightness or squeezing in your chest. Angina can last up to several minutes, or it can go away then return.

Although chest pain is the number 1 symptom of a heart attack, many patients don’t experience it at all. This is known as a silent heart attack. So you should be aware of other warning signs that include:

  • Lightheadedness/ Dizziness.
  • Sweating.
  • Wheezing.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling suddenly ill.

Both men and women share angina as the most common symptom of a heart attack. However, women are more likely to experience some of the other symptoms. These include:

  • Chest discomfort that radiates to the back, shoulders, arms, or the lower jaw.
  • Unusual fatigue that lasts a long time.
  • Constant nausea or vomiting.
  • Pressure in the upper abdomen.
  • Indigestion.

If you’re having a heart attack, you might not experience all of the symptoms at once. So make sure you pay attention to any warning signs your body gives you. If something doesn’t feel right, contact your doctor.

2. How long does a heart attack last?

Chest pain can happen if the blood flow to the heart gets temporarily interrupted and not enough oxygen reaches the heart muscles. This is known as stable angina, and it usually happens during exercise or stress.

Angina pain can last between 15 and 20 minutes. It usually goes away with rest, and does not lead to complications on its own. Nevertheless, it’s a major warning sign for a possible future heart attack.

During a heart attack, the blood flow to the heart is completely blocked and the pain can last up to several hours. Heart tissue dies in this case. People who experience recurrent stable angina episodes are at a higher risk of having a heart attack in the future.

Some heart attacks happen suddenly. But a lot of people start experiencing symptoms days, even weeks, before the actual attack.

If you think you had a heart attack but now you feel fine, contact your doctor anyway because heart attack symptoms can be continuous or they may come and go.

3. What’s the first thing you should do when having a heart attack?

Time is of the essence if you or someone you know is showing signs of myocardial infarction.

The longer you wait, the less your chances of surviving the heart attack are.

  • Get to an emergency room: Even if you’re unsure, you should always seek medical attention first. Calling an ambulance can probably speed up the beginning of your treatment process.
  • Chew Aspirin: Aspirin is a type of blood thinner. So taking an aspirin tablet while waiting for the ambulance can help restore some of the blood flow to the heart. But make sure that you (or the person taking the aspirin) are not allergic to it. 
  • Take your prescribed medications: Nitroglycerin may be prescribed to a person already diagnosed with a heart condition (coronary artery disease for example). Taking the nitroglycerin during an angina attack will dilate the blood arteries and allow blood to flow to the heart.
  • Perform CPR: A heart attack can lead to respiratory or cardiac arrest. If you’re with someone who suddenly loses consciousness, stops breathing, and does not have a pulse, start CPR immediately after calling an ambulance. CPR can keep the blood flowing until the EMTs come. If you’re not trained in CPR, try to get instructions when you call for an ambulance.

4. Can you have a heart attack at a young age?

Yes. It is possible to have a heart attack in your 20’s or 30’s. In fact, around 1 out of every 5 attack patients is younger than 40 years old.

However, the older you get, the higher your risk of having a heart attack. Keep in mind, however, that many risk factors increase the chance of myocardial infarction. These factors include smoking, diabetes, high cholesterol levels, high blood pressure, and obesity. So age is not the only player here.

There are changes you can do to decrease your chance of having an attack even as you grow older. You can start with eating healthier food, exercising regularly, performing regular health checkups, and quitting smoking.

5. What not to do during a heart attack

There are several things you should not do during a heart attack  that you should keep in mind:

  • Don’t ignore suspicious symptoms or wait for them to go away on their own.
  • If you’re the one having the attack, don’t drive yourself to a hospital if you can call an ambulance. You might get worse on the way and lose consciousness.
  • Don’t rely on nitroglycerin. Even if the person feels better after taking the nitro, get them into an emergency room and consult with their doctor.
  • Don’t give the patient any unprescribed medication other than a recommended aspirin tablet.
  • Don’t leave the person having the attack alone.

6. What rules out a heart attack?

You can not rule out a heart attack on your own especially based on symptoms alone.

Suspected heart attack patients usually get an ECG (electrocardiogram) that measures the electrical activity of the heart. Blood tests are also run to check for certain enzymes or proteins associated with heart attacks (e.g. Troponin). Additional tests can be requested such as a chest x-ray, an echocardiogram, an angiogram (cardiac catheter), or a cardiac MRI.

Only a doctor can confirm or rule out a heart attack based on the results of these tests combined with the onset of symptoms and the patient’s medical history.

7. Where do most heart attacks take place?

It is reported that most heart attacks occur at home rather than in a public place. This is why it can be very helpful to learn CPR because there may not be anyone close by to help until an ambulance arrives.

8. How can you prepare for a heart attack?

Although you can do things to decrease your risk of a heart attack, you can’t completely prevent it. The following are steps you can take to prepare for a possible attack:

  • Stay informed on the possible risks and telltale signs of heart attacks.
  • Inform people close to you on those risks and signs as well.
  • Keep a list of known allergies and prescribed medications.
  • Have some aspirin available on hand.
  • Learn CPR if you have a close person at risk.

Going through a heart attack can be a frightening experience for both patients and their loved ones. If it took you too long to seek medical attention, the heart muscle might be permanently damaged, worsening the outcomes. Keep in mind that you can lower your risks of having a heart attack - you can prepare for one, and the sooner you call for help the better.

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About the Author:
Dr. Mersad is a medical doctor, author, and editor based in Germany. He's managed to publish several research papers early in his career. He is passionate about spreading medical knowledge. Thus, he spends a big portion of his time writing educational articles for everyone to learn.