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Heart Disease Health Center

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Heart Attack and Unstable Angina - Overview

What causes a heart attack? continued...

This process of plaque buildup in the coronary arteries is called coronary artery disease, or CAD. In many people, plaque begins to form in childhood and gradually builds up over a lifetime. Plaque deposits may limit blood flow to the heart and cause angina. But too often, a heart attack is the first sign of CAD.

Things like intense exercise, sudden strong emotion, or illegal drug use (such as a stimulant, like cocaine) can trigger a heart attack. But in many cases, there is no clear reason why heart attacks occur when they do.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
  • Sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly, or in one or both shoulders or arms.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden weakness.
  • A fast or irregular heartbeat.

For men and women, the most common symptom is chest pain or pressure. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea, and back or jaw pain.

Here are some other ways to describe the pain from heart attack:

  • Many people describe the pain as discomfort, pressure, squeezing, or heaviness in the chest.
  • People often put their fist to their chest when they describe the pain.
  • The pain may spread down the left shoulder and arm and to other areas camera.gif, such as the back, jaw, neck, or right arm.

Unstable angina has symptoms similar to a heart attack.

What should you do if you think you are having a heart attack?

If you have symptoms of a heart attack, act fast. Quick treatment could save your life.

If your doctor has prescribed nitroglycerin for angina:

  1. Take 1 dose of nitroglycerin and wait 5 minutes.
  2. If your symptoms don't improve or if they get worse, call 911 or other emergency services. Describe your symptoms, and say that you could be having a heart attack.
  3. Stay on the phone. The emergency operator will tell you what to do. The operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin. Aspirin helps keep blood from clotting, so it may help you survive a heart attack.
  4. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
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