Heart Attack Symptoms: What To Do in an Emergency

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on September 10, 2020

Do you know the symptoms of a heart attack? This is a life-threatening emergency that requires quick action. Don’t ignore even minor heart attack symptoms. Immediate treatment lessens heart damage and saves lives.

Recognizing the Symptoms

These vary from person to person. Not all heart attacks begin with the sudden, crushing chest pain that most of us have heard about. In fact, some cause no symptoms at all, especially those that happen to people with diabetes.

They may begin slowly, with mild pain and discomfort. They can happen while you're at rest or active. How severe they are can depend on your age, gender, and medical conditions.

Warning Signs

Common ones may include:

Chest discomfort that feels like pressure, fullness, or a squeezing pain that lasts for more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.

Pain and discomfort that go beyond your chest to other parts of your upper body, like one or both arms, or your back, neck, stomach, teeth, and jaw


Unexplained shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort

Other symptoms, such as:

Women are more likely than men to have additional issues, like neck, shoulder, upper back, or abdominal pain.

What to Do When They Happen

If you or someone you’re with has chest discomfort or other heart attack symptoms, call 911 right away. While your first impulse may be to drive yourself or the heart attack victim to the hospital, it’s better to get an ambulance. Emergency medical services (EMS) personnel can start treatment on the way to the hospital. They’re also trained to revive a person if their heart stops.

If you can't reach EMS, drive the person to the hospital. If you’re the one with the symptoms, don’t drive yourself to the hospital unless you have no other choice.

Many people delay treatment because they doubt they are having a heart attack. They don't want to bother or worry their friends and family.

It’s always better to be safe than sorry.

Put Time on Your Side

Acting quickly can save lives. If given quickly after symptoms, clot-busting and artery-opening medications can stop a heart attack, and having a catheterization with a stent put in may open a closed blood vessel. The longer you wait for treatment, the more chances of survival go down and damage to the heart goes up.

About half of those who die from heart attacks do so within the first hour after symptoms begin.

What to Do Before Paramedics Arrive

  • Try to keep the person calm, and have them sit or lie down.
  • If the person is not allergic to aspirin, have them chew and swallow a baby aspirin. (It works faster when chewed and not swallowed whole.)
  • If the person stops breathing, you or someone else who’s qualified should perform CPR right away. If you don't know CPR, the 911 operator can help you until EMS personnel arrive.

Be Prepared

Nobody plans on having a heart attack. It’s best to be prepared. Steps you can take before symptoms start include:

  • Memorize the list of heart attack symptoms and warning signs.
  • Remember that you need to call 911 within 5 minutes of when they begin.
  • Talk to family and friends about the warning signs and the importance of calling 911 immediately.
  • Know your risk factors and do what you can to reduce them.
  • Create a heart attack survival plan that includes information about medicines you’re taking, your allergies, your doctor's number, and people to contact in case you go to the hospital. Keep this information in your wallet.
  • Arrange to have someone care for your dependents if an emergency happens.
WebMD Medical Reference



eMedicineHealth: "Heart Attack Symptoms."

American Heart Association: "Heart Attack, Stroke, and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs."

National Heart Lung and Blood Institute: "What Are the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack?"

MedicineNet: Health Tip: If Someone Is Having a Heart Attack."

© 2020 WebMD, LLC. All rights reserved.