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Heart Disease Health Center

Call 911 At First Sign of Heart Attack

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Heart attacks are caused when a blood clot closes off a heart artery, cutting off the organ's blood supply and causing heart muscle to begin to die. When someone with a heart attack gets to an emergency room, doctors can use medications to dissolve the clot. Or, sometimes, they inflate a tiny balloon inside the artery to open the vessel and get the circulation flowing again. "The sooner this is done, the greater the benefit," says Faxon. "It can still be done up to six hours after the heart attack started, but meanwhile, some heart muscle has died."

Women tend to delay calling 911 more than men do. Part of the problem could be that during a heart attack, women are more likely to experience vague symptoms that may be different than the classic chest pain that's easier for more people to recognize.

"Unfortunately the signs of a heart attack are hard to define precisely," Atkins says. Take sweating as an example, he says. It can signal a heart problem is present, but people may be sweating for many different reasons. "But if there's no explanation for your sweating, or if it's combined with discomfort and shortness of breath, that really is a sign you should come in and be checked."

In addition to chest pain and sweating, people should realize these other symptoms could be warning signs of a heart attack and seek help at once:

  • Discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, or stomach;
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Women often don't realize that heart disease is their No. 1 cause of death, not breast cancer, Faxon says. "Heart attacks can happen even in young women, but women in their 50s are equally likely to die from a heart attack or from other causes such as cancer. Once a woman reaches 65, she is more likely to die from heart disease than from all other causes."

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