A heart attack happens when the blood flow to your heart is suddenly reduced or cut off. Your blood carries oxygen to the heart. During a heart attack, your heart muscle doesn't get the oxygen it needs. Without oxygen, the heart muscle can be damaged or destroyed.
Getting your blood flow restored quickly is the key to recovery. Get medical help right away if you think you're having symptoms of a heart attack.
Causes of a Heart Attack
A buildup of cholesterol and a fatty material called plaque in your artery walls usually causes a heart attack. The buildup of plaque takes years.
Most heart attacks happen when plaque breaks off your artery wall. A blood clot then forms around the broken-off plaque, blocking the artery.
Heart Attack Symptoms
Men and women have different symptoms, but both may have pain, pressure, or discomfort in the chest. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, sweating, fainting, and nausea. You may also have pain in the neck, jaw, or shoulders.
Men are more likely to break out in a cold sweat and feel pain move down the left arm during a heart attack.
Symptoms in Women
About 435,000 women have heart attacks in the U.S. each year. The symptoms can be so mild they are often dismissed as something minor.
Women are more likely than men to have back or neck pain, heartburn, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and indigestion. They may also feel extremely tired, light-headed, or dizzy. Flu-like symptoms and sleep problems may also occur 2 weeks before a heart attack.
What to Do
If you or someone you're with has symptoms that might be a heart attack, call 911 right away. You're more likely to survive if you get treated within 90 minutes.
While you're calling 911, the person with heart attack symptoms should chew and swallow an aspirin to lower the risk of a blood clot (unless they're allergic). If the person is unconscious, hands-only CPR can double his chances of survival.
Diagnosis of a Heart Attack
An EKG, which checks your heart's electrical activity, can help doctors see if you're having a heart attack. It can also show which artery is clogged.
Doctors can also diagnose a heart attack with blood tests that measure the proteins that are released when heart muscle cells die.
Heart Attack Treatment
Doctors will move quickly to restore the flow of blood to your heart. You may get drugs that dissolve blood clots in your arteries.
You'll likely get a procedure called a coronary angiogram. Doctors put a thin tube with a balloon on the end through your artery. It opens up the blockage by flattening the plaque in your arteries. Most times doctors place a small, mesh tube called a stent in your artery to make sure it stays open.
Risks for Heart Attack
Your odds of having a heart attack go up with age, and men have a greater risk than women. A family history of heart disease also increases your risk.
Smoking can raise your risk of a heart attack. So can having high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, and being obese. Other things that can raise your risk of a heart attack are a lack of exercise, depression, and stress.
Prevent a Heart Attack
If you smoke, stop. It will immediately cut your chances of a heart attack by a third.
Get exercise and eat right. The American Heart Association recommends 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise per week. Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains to keep your arteries healthy.
Taking a daily aspirin helps some people prevent a heart attack. Talk to your doctor to see if it's right for you.
Find positive ways to manage stress.
Life After a Heart Attack
If you're in the hospital for a heart attack, you may come home in just a few days. You can resume your normal activities after a few weeks.
Cardiac rehab can help you recover. You'll get a fitness program that's made just for you, and learn how to keep up a heart-healthy lifestyle. Counselors give you support if you're depressed or worried about getting a second heart attack.
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CDC: "Know the Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack."
The Heart Foundation: "Heart Disease: Scope and Impact."
American Heart Association: "Mission: Lifeline Heart Attack 101," "Heart Attack Symptoms in Women," "Understand Your Risk of Heart Attack," "2013 top 10 advances in heart disease and stroke science."
Society for Cardiovascular Angiography and Interventions: "What Is a Heart Attack," "Heart Attack Treatment," "How Is a Heart Attack Treated?" "Risk Factor Modification," "What is Cardiac Rehabilitation?"
National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute: "What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease?" "What Are the Benefits of Quitting Smoking?" "Life After a Heart Attack."
Harvard Medical School: "Aspirin for heart attack: Chew or swallow?"
FDA: "Can an Aspirin a Day Help Prevent a Heart Attack?"
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for general informational purposes only and does not address individual circumstances. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment and should not be relied on to make decisions about your health. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the WebMD Site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.