How to Tell if Someone Is Having a Heart Attack

Five heart attack symptoms to watch for and how to respond
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Quick summary

Although you're probably familiar with the classic heart attack scenario from movies and TV, most people don't just clutch their chests and fall to the ground. Heart attacks usually start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort, or even more subtle flu-like symptoms. Heart attack symptoms can be subtle, and it's not always easy to tell what's happening. But if someone is having a heart attack, every second counts: There's a limited window of time before heart muscle is permanently damaged. Delaying treatment also increases the risk of sudden death from an irregular heart rhythm.

To give someone the best possible chance of recovery, it's wise to familiarize yourself with the warning signs of a heart attack. Remember that all heart attacks are not equal: Even if you've seen someone have a heart attack before, a second heart attack or a heart attack in someone else might not have the same symptoms.

Pay special attention to heart attack symptoms in women

Although many people mistakenly believe that cardiovascular disease isn't a problem for women, it's still a leading cause of death. Unfortunately, women tend to have different heart attack symptoms than men, so heart disease may go unrecognized until it's too late. In a study of 515 women who'd had heart attacks, the most frequently reported symptoms were unusual fatigue, sleep disturbances, shortness of breath, indigestion, and anxiety. Less than one-third reported any chest discomfort.

How to respond if you see signs of a heart attack

In general, it's best to call 911 if you have any reason to suspect that someone is having a heart attack. Waiting even an hour or two may limit treatment options and reduce the chance of a full recovery. It's common for someone having a heart attack to downplay the situation because he or she is embarrassed and doesn't want to cause a scene. Take charge and call for help even if the person tries to talk you out of it. Don't wait to see if heart attack symptoms go away -- and call even if the symptoms do disappear or come and go. If it turns out to be something less serious than a heart attack, at least you'll have some peace of mind.

Bear in mind that not all of the following warning signs occur in every heart attack.

The five signs of heart attack

Heart attack sign #1: Chest discomfort or pain

The most commonly reported heart attack symptom among men is chest discomfort, often described as a heaviness, tightness, or even a burning sensation. The feeling usually starts in the center of the chest and may or may not radiate to other areas of the body. It may go away and then come back, or it may be continuous.

If you're aware of someone experiencing any persistent chest discomfort, call 911 right away. Even if it's angina rather than a full-blown heart attack, he needs to see a doctor.

Heart attack sign #2: Discomfort in other parts of the body

Sometimes the pain of a heart attack doesn't occur in the chest. Instead, he or she might complain of discomfort or pain in one or both arms or back, neck, jaw, or even stomach. Women are more likely than men to experience pain in the jaw or back during an attack. It can be hard to tell if the discomfort is related to a heart attack or something else entirely, but if the pain came on suddenly or the person is experiencing another symptom as well, call 911.

Heart attack sign #3: Shortness of breath

It's common to be a little short of breath after exertion. But if someone is having difficulty breathing when at rest, it's cause for concern. Have him stop whatever he's doing and sit or lie down. If the shortness of breath persists for more than two minutes, call 911.

Heart attack sign #4: Nausea, sweating, pallor, or clamminess

These more subtle signs of heart attack can sometimes be mistaken for the flu. Women are more likely than men to report flu-like symptoms. If these symptoms come on suddenly or are accompanied by other signs of a heart attack, call 911.

Heart attack sign #5: A general feeling of extreme weakness or fatigue

As with nausea and sweating, weakness or fatigue can be symptoms of other conditions. But if the weakness or tiredness comes on suddenly -- espe cially if it's a woman experiencing it -- call 911.


J. McSweeney, M. Cody, P. O'Sullivan, K. Elberson, D. Moser, B. Garvin, "Women's early warning symptoms of acute myocardial infarction," Circulation , 2003.

Stephanie Trelogan

Stephanie Trelogan writes about heart disease, stroke, and depression issues that concern people caring for their aging parents. See full bio

over 1 year, said...

i had my angiograph and angioscope with one 4 cm long stent on 7th march 2015, it was sudden uneasiness while i was on payment collection, recently i have been eating anything and everything due to job loss, i don't exercise or sleep well, sometimes i have shortage in breath, dry mouth, slight chest burn or pain i am still due to cold weather i don't go to walk so i climb 76 stair steps and feel tired, what is your advice. my age 58 years 10 months, weight 165 pounds and 5.6 feet tall i love chocalate and pastries

over 1 year, said...

I'm a 19 year old female, a little over weight and I've had chest pains. I started getting pains along with arm pain, sweats, and constantly feeling like I'm going to die about 2 months ago. I cant sleep because every time i doze off I wake up with a racing heart and feel scared. I started eating healthier and exercising(which actually stops my chest pains). I went to my doctor and she told me I just have panic attacks and my EKG came back normal. There are no heart issues in my family other than my mom who died of a heart attack in her sleep at age 47 but she was a big drug addict.. But I'm still scared I'm having a heart attack. How likely would it be for me to have one?

almost 3 years, said...

My bloid pressure is 155 over 117 and my hestt rate is 145 with no physical activity. I feel exremely nausuated nervous and dizzy. I am al so having extreme weight loss. Dr says just to keep a log of my pressure. Is there anything else he should look at

almost 3 years, said...

Ive had 2 heart attacks and been on life support, my husband says I panic, my np right now is 190/120 my pulse is 114, my cardiologists nurse says I should go to the er, my husband says they tell everyone that, I confused, I feel like hell

about 3 years, said...

very good info----i am 92 and live alone and am concern about a heart attack i do have shorten of breath due to a leaky heart== had an eacho ==if that,is how you spell it and it isn't leaking as much as last year--i know this long but i want to know more about having an attack=====thanks for the info

about 3 years, said...

we went to eat with friends and all of a sudden my husband started sweating, got weak and when it passed he got very fatigue.the weakness and tiredness came on suddenly he is an 80 year old man with heart disease but this has not happened before// my friend said it could have been a blood clot. he would not go to the hospital to be checked out. what do you think it could it have been

over 3 years, said...

When I had my heart attack... the only thing that I had was a sense of doom... I knew that if I let my husband leave for work I would be dead when he came home. There was no pain. I had not lay down to sleep all night. I now know I should have called for an ambulance..... rather then being taken to the hospital by car. I might have died becauses I did not want to bother anybody. After the surgery I remember waking up and being so happy to be alive.

over 3 years, said...

My sister went into cardiac arrest due to exercise bulimia after feeling like her right shoulder blade had popped out and she was in incredible pain. She was also very tired and disoriented.

over 3 years, said...

I had a heart attack last month, I felt as though I had indigestion I didn't see that listed.

over 3 years, said...

Interesting article. I wish I'd seen it before I went down in the road with a heart attack while walking my dog. I had been experiencing extreme fatigue for several days prior to the event, and one night about four days prior to this, severe jaw pain woke me up. I ended up in the ER, got stitches for cuts on my head, and spent several days in icu. Am now wearing a Zoll Life Vest in case of sudden cardiac arrest; have several more weeks to go wearing this, and am climbing the walls because I'm not to drive nor workout in the gym. The ironic thing about this is that I had my annual checkup two weeks previously. Great health - I worked out three mornings a week, walked the dog twice a day, ate a heart-healthy diet, took no medications.

over 3 years, said...

My husband passed away on April 27; he died while we were shopping at Walmart. The only words he said: I don't feel good and he started collapsing in my arms. What I would like to know why his eyes were so wide open and he couldn't move his eyes while I could see his stomach moving a little bit. The doctors said that he died of a massive heart attach. It seems he tried to say something but he could talk no more at that point.

almost 4 years, said...


almost 4 years, said...


almost 4 years, said...

What a great article!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I would like too know about which foods should be eaten for our health!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

about 4 years, said...

I think sneezing is the most highest natural pressure that humans can do to his own body . 1-this is bad = maybe you breath something bad and body wants to get rid of it= a virus or what. 2-sneez is good= if you cant sneeze much , something should be wrong . that means, you find it difficult to subject your whole body to high sneeze pressures . see those newly caesarians and the likes ? they wont sneeze much , otherwise, the opening would explode also . === me, most mornings, I look up at the sun=presto = super sneeze . but that's not 100% guaranty of being healthy= at least I have some kind of good signs , or otherwise , IF I CANT = SEE THE DOCTOR , OR THINK MUCH ABOUT IT .

about 4 years, said...

for the last few weeks, I have had pain neck, dizzy confused , and rapidly changing ,blood pressure. Yesterday ,thought I was going to faint,worse dizziness, heart pounding.B.P was186/95 pulse 88.have an doctor apt this am, but what else do I do ?. scared to death

about 4 years, said...

Hello, I'm sorry to hear that you're not feeling well, and I encourage you to contact your doctor. As a reminder, is an informational website only, and does not provide medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Please speak with a licensed medical professional offline to receive expert guidance in treating the health symptoms you described.

about 4 years, said...

what is wrong with me? i am so weak and so tired so hard just to brush my teeth. im in chronic pain in my body head back pelvic so sad cuz i don't ever get to feel well. day after day. please tell me what to do . iv'e had many mental breakdowns and very much stress and trauma in my life. i need help and medical help so bad, but nobody is taking the tests needed to find out what is wrong.