What to Do During a Heart Attack

Every year about 790,000 Americans have a heart attack. Being prepared for an event such as a heart attack, which can strike at any moment, greatly increases the chances of survival and leads to an easier recovery. To prepare you, we’ve provided more information below about what a heart attack is, the warning signs, and easy-to-remember steps to take if a heart attack strikes you or your aging loved one.

What is a Heart Attack?

According to the American Heart Association, a heart attack occurs when the blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart muscle is severely reduced or cut off completely. This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can slowly become narrow from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances that together are called plaque. This slow process is known as atherosclerosis. When a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around the plaque. This blood clot can block the blood flow through the heart muscle. When the heart muscle is starved for oxygen and nutrients, it is called ischemia. When damage or death of part of the heart muscle occurs as a result of ischemia, it is called a heart attack or myocardial infarction (MI). About every 40 seconds, someone in the United States has a myocardial infarction (heart attack).

What Are the Warning Signs or Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Here are the warning signs of an impending heart attack:

  • Nausea, indigestion, heartburn, or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Fatigue
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy

If you notice any of the above individually or in combination – don’t dismiss them.

What Should You Do During a Heart Attack?

Now that you know the warning signs, you need to know what to do when a heart attack takes place. Whether alone or with a loved one, remember these primary steps:

Call 911 Immediately. There is no time to waste and it is not the time to act tough. Call 911 and explain the situation. They will dispatch emergency responders and walk you through what to do next. If you don’t have access to emergency medical services, have a neighbor or a friend drive you to the nearest hospital.

Remain still and calm. This is easier said than done but remember that any additional stress or movements can increase the harm placed on your heart. As much as possible, remain still until emergency medical staff arrive.

Take an aspirin. Taking an aspirin can give your heart some needed relief by thinning the blood and/or reducing the blood clot. However, you should not take aspirin if you are allergic to aspirin or have been told by your doctor never to take aspirin. Discuss with your physician and seek their advice.

Begin CPR. If you’re with a person who is unconscious, tell the 911 dispatcher or another emergency medical specialist. You may be advised to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR). If you do not have CPR training, learn more about getting your CPR and First-Aid training here.

Use an external defibrillator (AED). If an AED is immediately available and the person is unconscious, follow the device instructions for using it. To find out if you need one and how to purchase one, check out our blog Should You Buy a Defibrillator for Your Home?

Remember, if you or your loved one is experiencing a heart attack, call 911. If you are unsure, call 911 anyway. Discuss these steps with your loved ones, as well as your physician for additional advice.