illustration of heart attack
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What Is It?

When blood can't get to your heart, your heart muscle doesn't get the oxygen it needs. Without oxygen, its cells can be damaged or die.

The key to recovery is to get your blood flow restored quickly. Get medical help right away if you think you're having symptoms of a heart attack.

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illustratino of plaque buildup in artery
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Over time, cholesterol and a fatty material called plaque can build up on the walls inside blood vessels that take blood to your heart, called arteries. This makes it harder for blood to flow freely. Most heart attacks happen when a piece of this plaque breaks off. A blood clot forms around the broken-off plaque, and it blocks the artery.

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man having heart attack
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You may feel pain, pressure, or discomfort in your chest. You could be short of breath, sweat, faint, or feel sick to your stomach. Your neck, jaw, or shoulders might hurt.

Men and women can have different symptoms. Men are more likely to break out in a cold sweat and to feel pain move down their left arm.

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woman experiencing neck pain
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Symptoms in Women

Women are more likely than men to have back or neck pain, heartburn, and shortness of breath. They tend to have stomach trouble, including an upset stomach, feeling queasy, and throwing up. They may also feel very tired, light-headed, or dizzy. A couple of weeks before a heart attack, a woman might have flu-like symptoms and sleep problems.

About 435,000 women have heart attacks in the U.S. each year. Symptoms can be so mild they're often dismissed as something minor.

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What to Do

If you or someone you're with has symptoms that might be a heart attack, call 911 right away. If it is, you're more likely to survive if you get treated within 90 minutes. While you're on the phone, the person should chew and swallow an aspirin (unless they're allergic) to lower the risk of a blood clot. Are they unconscious? Hands-only CPR can double their chances of survival.

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doctor giving patient EKG
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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 or blocked.

Doctors can also diagnose a heart attack with blood tests that look for proteins that heart cells release when they die.

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illustration of stent with balloon angioplasty
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Doctors will quickly act to get blood flowing to your heart again. You may get drugs that dissolve blood clots.

You'll likely have a procedure called a coronary angiogram. A thin tube with a tiny balloon on the end goes through your artery. It opens up the blockage by flattening the plaque against the walls. Most times, doctors place a small, mesh tube called a stent in your artery to make sure it stays open.

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couch potato
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What Puts You at Risk?

Your odds of having a heart attack go up with age, and men are more likely to have one than women. A family history of heart disease also increases your risk. Smoking raises your chances of a heart attack. So does having high blood pressure, high cholesterol levels, diabetes, and being obese. Stress, a lack of exercise, and depression can, too.

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woman balancing on exercise ball
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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 30 minutes of moderate exercise a day, 5 days a week. Eat plenty of fruits, veggies, and whole grains to keep your arteries healthy.

For some people, taking a daily aspirin will help. Talk to your doctor to see if it's right for you.

Find positive ways to manage your stress.

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mature mans birthday
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Life After a Heart Attack

If you're in the hospital, you may come home after just a few days. You can get back to your normal daily life in a few weeks.

Cardiac rehab can help you recover. You'll get your own fitness program and learn how to keep up a heart-healthy lifestyle. Counselors give you support if you're feeling down or worried about having another attack.

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Sources | Medically Reviewed on 5/1/2017 1 Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 01, 2017


(1)    3DClinic
(2)    MARIE SCHMITT / age footstock
(3)    iStock / 360
(4)    Corbis
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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?"

Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on May 01, 2017

This tool does not provide medical advice. See additional information.

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.