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Medical News Today: What to do in the event of a heart attack

Learning to recognize warning signs and risk factors can help people avoid a heart attack. When a person has a heart attack, knowing what to do and acting quickly can help them have a better outcome.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), a person has a heart attack every 40 seconds in the United States.

A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage of blood flow to the heart. When a blockage to blood flow occurs, it can damage or even kill parts of the heart tissue.

While the movies may depict heart attacks as happening suddenly, many heart attacks begin slowly and have many warning signs.

Signs and symptoms

A heart attack may cause pain in both shoulders and arms.

The main heart attack symptoms include the following:

  • Chest pain or discomfort: The chest pain or discomfort may feel like pressure, tightness, or a squeezing sensation.
  • Shortness of breath: This may occur with or without chest pain.
  • Discomfort in other parts of the body: The back, both arms and shoulders, neck, or jaw may also be uncomfortable during a heart attack.

While both males and females may experience the primary heart attack signs and symptoms, the symptoms we have listed above are more common in males.

Females are more likely to experience additional signs and symptoms. These include:

What to do

A heart attack is a life-threatening medical emergency. If someone may be having a heart attack, a person should immediately call 911 for emergency help before doing anything else. Acting quickly can help save someone’s life.

If a person is having a heart attack, calling 911 is often a better course of action than taking the individual to the emergency room. Paramedics typically reach a person faster than they can get to the emergency room themselves. Additionally, when paramedics arrive, they can begin lifesaving treatment immediately.

If the individual having the heart attack is unconscious, someone with cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) training should begin CPR.

If a defibrillator is available and someone knows how to use it, they should use the defibrillator after performing CPR if necessary.

If you are alone

If a person is alone and experiencing any symptoms of a heart attack, they should immediately call 911.

Next, they should take aspirin if available, and unlock their door, so that paramedics have access. Then they should lay down near the door but not blocking it, to make it easy for paramedics to find them.

Causes and risk factors

Having high blood pressure can increase the risk of heart attacks.
Having high blood pressure can increase the risk of a heart attack.

A person should be aware of their risk factors so they can take steps to prevent a heart attack.

There are some heart attack risk factors that people can influence and others that they cannot.

Heart attack risk factors that people cannot influence include:

  • Age: While heart disease affects people of all ages, according to the American Heart Association (AHA) the most of those who die from coronary heart disease are adults over 65 years of age.
  • Sex: Males are more likely than females to have and die of a heart attack.
  • Family history: People with a significant family history of heart disease are more likely to experience a heart attack.
  • Race and ethnicity: Some ethnic groups, including African Americans, some Asians, and Mexican Americans, are more likely to have a heart attack than others.

While people cannot influence the above risk factors, there are many risk factors that they can modify or treat to prevent a heart attack.

Modifiable risk factors for heart disease and heart attack include:


Limiting alcohol intake can help reduce the risk of heart attacks.
Limiting alcohol intake can help reduce the risk of a heart attack.

The best way to prevent a heart attack is to reduce any risk factors. People can reduce their chances of a heart attack by:

  • losing weight if they are obese or overweight
  • treating high blood pressure and high cholesterol by consulting a doctor
  • controlling diabetes through diet, medication, and managing blood sugar
  • eating a diet rich in fresh vegetables and fruits and low in saturated fats and processed foods
  • stopping smoking or using tobacco products
  • limiting alcohol consumption to no more than two drinks a day for men or one per day for women
  • getting at least 150 minutes of moderate physical activity per week

Additionally, a person should have regular checkups with their doctor. Regular checkups can help identify new risk factors for heart disease that a person may develop and monitor any existing ones they have.


Heart attacks are life-threatening medical emergencies that require immediate medical help. Knowing the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can help a person get the help they need as early as possible. Reducing risk factors for heart disease can help a person prevent a heart attack.