If you or someone you love needs emergency heart treatment, it’ll help to know when they should get to the emergency room and what to expect.
It's also important to know how you can be prepared.
When to Go to the ER
For many people, knowing when to seek emergency care isn't always clear. Most people know to call 911 right away when faced with a life-threatening situation, such as loss of consciousness, breathing trouble, or serious trauma. But heart attack symptoms aren't always as clear. It may be hard to tell if they’re from a heart crisis or heartburn, for example.
Remember, it’s always better to be safe than sorry. If you feel it’s an emergency, call 911 and ask them to send an ambulance right away.
EMS personnel can start caring for you or your loved one immediately, and they’ll alert the emergency room to let them know you are coming.
If you have these symptoms, go to the emergency room immediately:
- Discomfort that feels like pressure, fullness, or a squeezing pain in the center or left side of your chest. It lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain and discomfort that extend beyond your chest to other parts of your upper body, such as one or both arms, back, neck, stomach, and jaw
- Unexplained shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
- Any of the symptoms above that come with a cold sweat, nausea, lightheadedness, anxiety, or indigestion
You never know when you may need to go to the emergency room, so it's best to be ready. Here are some steps you can take now to make any visit to the emergency room easier:
Create a file -- and update it regularly -- that includes:
- Information on any chronic health conditions you have
- Results of past medical tests
- A list of your allergies
- A list of medications, vitamins, and herbal supplements you’re taking
- The names and numbers of your doctors, family, and friends who may need to be contacted
Keep this file in a place where you can find it quickly.
Check your health insurance to find out which hospital emergency rooms your plan covers. Keep a list of their names, addresses, and phone numbers.
But if you think you are having a heart attack, call 911. Don’t drive yourself, and don’t have someone else drive you.
What to Bring
- Your file with your health information
- Your insurance card
- Paper and pen to document the treatment you or a loved one receives
If there’s time, have a loved one let your doctor know what’s going on.
What to Expect When You Arrive
Emergency rooms treat the most serious illnesses first. If you arrive with symptoms of a heart attack, they’ll see you quickly. Doctors will work to confirm your diagnosis, relieve your symptoms, and treat the problem. Depending upon your symptoms, you may have one or more of the following:
- Medical history
- Physical exam
- Intravenous (IV) fluids
- An electrocardiogram (EKG) to diagnose a heart attack
- Electrocardiographic (EKG) monitoring to screen for abnormal heart rhythms, called arrhythmias
- Blood tests to confirm a heart attack
- Medications, such as nitroglycerin, aspirin, and clot-busting drugs
- Cardiac catheterization, which involves threading a flexible tube into the heart from a blood vessel in the wrist or groin to open a blocked artery
Be prepared to answer a lot of questions, including ones about:
- Your pain
- Past and current health problems, including any history of heart disease
- Risk factors
- Your lifestyle habits, including if you smoke, drink, or use recreational drugs
- Medicines you’re taking now, both prescription and over-the-counter
- Dietary and herbal supplements you’re taking.
- Any allergies you have, especially ones to medications
Transfer from Emergency Room to Hospital Room
Not everyone who goes to the emergency room with chest pain is admitted to the hospital. But if there’s a reasonable chance that the pain is due to a heart attack or other serious condition, you will be.
For the first 24 hours after a heart attack, you’re usually in a coronary care unit (CCU) or an intensive care unit (ICU). There, skilled staff will closely check your heart. A series of electrocardiograms and blood tests will be performed. Doctors will continue to keep close watch over you and give you meds as needed. Your doctor may ask for more tests.
If you’re stable after 24 hours in the CCU or ICU, you may be moved to the "telemetry" floor, where a cardiac care team will continue to care for you.
Depending upon the severity of the heart attack and how quickly you received treatment, you may be able to go home in 2 to 4 days.
When You Get Home From the Hospital
- Follow instructions in your discharge summary.
- Take all your prescribed medicines.
- Make an appointment to see your cardiologist.
- Follow your doctor's instructions about when to resume normal activities.