How to Survive a Heart Attack: 5 Life-Saving Tips to Know

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Heart disease is responsible for 1 in 4 deaths. in the US, making it the leading cause of death nationwide. A heart attack can be sudden and devastating, so it’s important to know what to do when one occurs.

Unfortunately, popular culture is full of some of the wrong answers in this equation. Sex and the City fans felt despair when Carrie found Mr. Big lying on the floor after a heart attack. She just hugged him and cried frantically instead of calling 911, providing a prime example of what not to do.

Here’s how to survive a heart attack or help someone who has one.

Is this a heart attack? common symptoms

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When you think of a “heart attack,” the first things that come to mind are classic symptoms like chest discomfort. But heart attacks can present differently in men and women, and in people with certain diseases, such as diabetes.

Symptoms of a heart attack can include:

  • Discomfort, pain, or pressure in the chest that radiates to the jaw, back, or left shoulder
  • Bad indigestion or nausea.
  • extreme fatigue
  • Difficulty breathing
  • feeling bad in general

“Essentially anything from the belly button up,” says Dr. Khadijah Breathett, a heart failure transplant cardiologist and senior associate professor of medicine at Indiana University. “The constant pressure should raise concern that they need to see their doctor, and that’s fine if it’s something else. We’d rather have a person come see a health professional and get evaluated than put up with it at home, because that’s what contributes to the increased risk of death.”

Call 911, no matter what

If you feel any of the above symptoms, even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, you should call 911 right away, doctors recommend.

“If you don’t feel well or start to have chest discomfort, seek medical attention quickly, because the sooner you get treatment, the better,” says Dr. Grant Reed, an interventional cardiologist and director of the STEMI program at the Cleveland Clinic. “Many patients ignore their symptoms and by the time they arrive, the heart muscle has already died.”

an ambulance on the road

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The No. 1 indicator of how well you’ll do after a heart attack is how quickly you recognize your symptoms, Reed adds. There’s a strong relationship between when you start having a heart attack (which is usually when symptoms start) and how quickly doctors can open the blocked coronary artery that’s causing it: the shorter the time, the better better resultsnot only in terms of survival, but also in terms of the likelihood of heart failure or the need to be readmitted to the hospital.

When you arrive at the hospital, medical professionals will likely perform an electrocardiogram (EKG or ECG), which will determine a diagnosis of a heart attack. If it’s a heart attack, you’ll be taken to the cardiac catheterization lab, where you’ll have a coronary angiogram. If you have a blockage in your coronary artery, doctors will offer you balloon and stent treatment to keep the artery open.

Many people are hesitant to seek emergency medical care due to lack of insurance or immigration status. But in the US, hospitals are required to treat all people admitted with life-threatening emergencies.

“It’s much better to get treatment and deal with the financial ramifications after the fact,” says Grant. In most cases, the costs can be worked out with the hospital, she adds.

an electrocardiogram line with a stylized heart

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Do not drive yourself or your loved one to the hospital

If you suspect you are having a heart attack, don’t drive to the hospital: call an ambulance. You could pass out and hurt yourself or others along the way, says Dr. Joel Beachey, a cardiologist at Mayo Clinic Health System in Eau Claire, Wisconsin. The same goes for a loved one driving you: if his symptoms worsen, he won’t be able to help you while he’s driving and he may be distracted.

Paramedics can provide you with the best and fastest care while you’re on your way to the hospital, including providing an evaluation and providing some treatment, says Beachey.

If you’re with someone who’s having symptoms of a heart attack and loses consciousness, you should first call 911 and then perform CPR, Breathett says. (You can find free CPR training at your American Heart Association branch and many other places.)

Take aspirin, if you have it.

If you have symptoms of a heart attack and have access to an aspirin, take a full 325-mg dose after calling the ambulance, Beachey says. (If you have baby aspirin, which comes in a dose of 81 mg, take four.) He recommends chewing it rather than swallowing it, so it gets into your system faster.

The reason? When you have a heart attack, plaque within your arteries becomes unstable and ruptures, forming a blood clot that can shut off the supply to that artery. Taking aspirin can help break down some of that blood clot.

patient on stretcher receiving CPR

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advocate for yourself

Although in an ideal world, health care providers would take all patients’ concerns about heart attack symptoms seriously, studies show that women and people of color are less likely to receive treatment suitable for heart attacks and heart disease. For example, older black women were 50% less likely to receive treatment when they arrived at the hospital with symptoms of a heart attack or coronary artery disease than were white women, even after accounting for education, income, insurance status and other heart health complications such as diabetes and high blood pressure, a study 2019 found.

“It’s been very clear for most of our history in the US that women and people of color are not heard,” says Breathett. “Their symptoms are dismissed and they have worse outcomes. As a health care system, we have a lot more work to do to change that system so that every person can receive equitable care regardless of their demographics.”

Until that time, patients need to be their own advocates and speak for themselves, he adds. And if they are not being heard, they have the right to seek care elsewhere.

A tip recommended by a TikTok resident: If you think a provider isn’t taking your symptoms seriously, for heart health or otherwise, you can ask them, “What’s your differential diagnosis?”

@dor_the_grayt POCs are more likely to be ignored. Ask questions, take notes, document events. If you are alone, have a relative/friend on the phone. #patientlawyer#racisminmedicine#maternal mortality#bipoc#black women#learntiktok♬ original sound – Dorender Dankwa

A differential diagnosis is a term to describe what different illnesses might be contributing to your symptoms, basically asking the provider to explain why they ruled out a heart attack and what else it could be. “That might help a person realize, oh, I haven’t tested effectively to make sure it’s not heart disease,” says Breathett.

You can also bring a family member or friend to help you ask questions on your behalf. Write down questions ahead of time if you can, so you can answer them during your short visit. And call back with any questions that haven’t been answered. If you are not satisfied or feel unheard, find another care team.

Work on prevention

You’ve heard it a million times, but it’s because it’s true: The best way to prevent a heart attack is to eat a healthy diet, exercise moderately 120 to 150 minutes a week, keep your cholesterol and blood pressure under control, and not to smoke.

Woman in exercise equipment checking her wrist

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Heart attacks can happen to people of any age, race, or gender. You should have regular physical exams with your primary care provider to assess your risk and make lifestyle changes that can help with prevention. Some people may also benefit from taking a baby aspirin every day as a preventative measure, but you’ll need to talk to your provider about this.

Exercise is important even if you have a history of heart problems, says Beachey.

“Just because Mr. Big was exercising in a Peloton It doesn’t mean it caused the heart attack.” “That exercise pattern probably helped him put off the moment the heart attack happened.”

The information contained in this article is for educational and informational purposes only and is not intended as health or medical advice. Always consult a physician or other qualified health care provider regarding any questions you may have about a medical condition or health goals.

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