Know the warning signs of heart attack

The Family Health Guide

Know the warning signs of heart attack

Two-thirds of Americans can't identify the signs of a heart attack and say what needs to be done when one strikes. That's the unsettling news from a survey done by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

The longer you wonder "Am I having a heart attack?" or "Am I having a stroke?" the longer your heart or brain cells may be cut off from life-sustaining oxygen. (You don't get much time to think about a cardiac arrest — a few seconds after it hits, you're unconscious.)

It's hard not to wonder, though. Heart attacks aren't always the obvious, chest-clutching, elephants-sitting-on-my-chest events portrayed on television or in articles about the warning signs of a heart attack. The signs can be subtle, like heaviness in the arms, unusual fatigue, or unexpected nausea. A heart attack can be mistaken for the flu, indigestion, or a strained muscle. Strokes can be equally sneaky. A general rule: if you think you are having a heart attack or stroke, act on that suspicion.

Fast action is essential. The sooner you get to the hospital, the greater the chances that doctors can restore blood flow to your heart or brain and thus minimize permanent damage to these key organs.

Here's a list of warning signs suitable for posting on the refrigerator or near the telephone. It covers all three of the major cardiovascular catastrophes. Before putting it up, take a minute or so to read the list a few times. A small investment of time now might help you, someone you love, or even a stranger survive one of these disasters and live a long life afterward.

Know the signs

Every minute counts when a heart attack, stroke, or cardiac arrest is under way. Knowing the signs can translate into getting to the hospital — and getting treatment — fast enough to do the most good. If you recognize any of the signs below, call 911 or your local emergency number right away. Don't call your doctor's office or drive yourself to the hospital.

Heart attack

  • Pain in the center of the chest
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Weakness
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Heaviness, weakness, or pain in one or both arms
  • Back pain
  • Indigestion
  • Racing or fluttering heart


  • Sudden numbness or weakness of the face, arm, or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion or trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden problem with walking, loss of balance, or coordination
  • Sudden, severe headache with no known cause

Cardiac arrest

  • Sudden collapse with no responsiveness
  • Absence of normal breathing

August 2008 update

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