Is It a Heart Attack? Signs, Symptoms & Prevention

04/25/2023 | 4 min. read

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You feel discomfort in your chest. You’re also nauseous, dizzy, and are struggling to catch your breath. Is it the flu? Did your lunch not agree with you? Or, are you having a heart attack?

While you can’t miss a Hollywood heart attack where the actor doubles over with crushing chest pain, sweat beading on his forehead before collapsing to the floor—real-life heart attacks can be trickier to spot.

Yet, with a heart attack every minute counts. So, knowing the signs and symptoms could save your life.

Symptoms and Signs of a Heart Attack

While heart attacks in both men and women can present themselves with “classic” heart attack symptoms—like chest pain—many people (especially women) can experience far subtler signs that a heart attack is occurring. So, it’s important to know all the possible signs.

Common heart attack symptoms:

  • Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest—either intermittent or constant
  • Pain in one (or both) arms
  • Pain in the jaw or neck
  • Sweating

Less common heart attack symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness or lightheadedness
  • Weakness
  • Unexplained tiredness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Back pain
  • A feeling of needing to burp

For women, early warning signs of a heart attack can also present themselves a month in advance. 

If you think you’re having a heart attack:

  • Call "911"—or ask someone near you to call. Do not let someone drive you to the hospital since lifesaving care begins right in the ambulance.
  • Chew an aspirin—which is an effective blood thinner.
  • Unlock your front door—so the emergency medical team can reach you.

Why Do Heart Attacks Occur?

A heart attack occurs when plaque in an artery breaks off, forming a clot that blocks a coronary artery that supplies blood to the heart.

When nutrient- and oxygen-rich blood can’t reach a segment of the heart, that part of the heart dies. Plus, the injured area can no longer emit the electrical signals that are needed to keep the heart pumping as it should.

Types of Heart Attacks

There are three main types of heart attacks:

  • ST-Elevation Myocardial Infarction (STEMI): This type of heart attack occurs when the coronary artery is fully blocked. It’s the most severe type of heart attack and requires immediate medical care. Clot-busting medications are often used to dissolve the clot, and you may require an angioplasty-stent to open the artery. 
  • Non ST Segment Myocardial Infarction (NSTEMI): An NSTEMI heart attack occurs when there is a partial blockage in the coronary artery, restricting blood flow. This type of heart attack is often diagnosed when blood enzymes are elevated, indicating that a heart attack has occurred—but the elevation isn’t reflected in the electrocardiogram (EKG). With an NSTEMI heart attack, blood thinners can be effective. Plus, doctors will use further diagnostic testing to diagnose the cause of the blockage, and medications and lifestyle interventions to control the cause of the heart disease. 
  • Silent Heart Attacks: These cardiac events don’t give off the same clear warning signs of a full-blown heart attack and can mimic other health issues. Yet, recognizing the signs and symptoms of a silent heart attack and getting it properly diagnosed is important since it means you’re at elevated risk for a full-blown heart attack. 

How Is a Heart Attack Diagnosed?

In the hospital emergency room, the medical staff will measure your vital signs. Plus, they will typically perform two tests to determine if you had a heart attack:

  • Electrocardiogram (EKG): Using sensors on your body, the EKG monitors the electrical activity of your heart. If the electrical activity of your heart was disrupted by muscle damage as a result of a heart attack, it will show up in the EKG reading.
  • Blood Test for Enzymes: If your heart is injured by a heart attack, it releases two enzymes into your bloodstream: troponin T (TnT) and troponin I (TNI). So, doctors in the emergency room will typically draw your blood to see if those enzymes are present.

If doctors suspect a heart attack, they will perform additional tests to determine the extent of your heart disease and how much damage has occurred to your heart. Then, they will take steps to treat the heart. Remember that recovery after a heart attack can take three months (or more) depending upon the damage—so it’s important to be patient. 

Preventing Heart Attacks

A healthy lifestyle is your best defense against having a heart attack.

  • Maintain a Healthy Weight: Even losing just 10 pounds can help. Belly fat is the riskiest because it produces hormones that can lead to inflammation.
  • Drink Less Alcohol: One glass of red wine can protect the heart, too much can damage your arteries and even interfere with your heartbeat.
  • Don’t Smoke: Smoking promotes atherosclerosis, raising your risk of having a heart attack or stroke. E-cigarettes and vaping can be just as damaging. Here’s how to quit smoking
  • Get Moving: Exercise is powerful medicine—lowering your blood pressure, promoting healthy cholesterol, and helping to keep your blood sugar in check. Here are the best (and worst) exercises for your heart
Dr. Stephen Sinatra

Meet Dr. Stephen Sinatra

A true pioneer, Dr. Sinatra spent more than 40 years in clinical practice, including serving as an attending physician and chief of cardiology at Manchester Memorial Hospital, then going on to formulate his advanced line of heart health supplements. His integrative approach to heart health has changed the lives of hundreds of thousands.

More About Dr. Stephen Sinatra