Heart Attack: Signs and Symptoms

A heart attack, or acute myocardial infarction, happens when one or more areas of your heart muscle don't get enough oxygen because of blocked blood flow.  Knowing what causes this blockage and what happens during a heart attack could help save your life.


Heart attacks are usually caused by coronary artery disease, or CAD. CAD is a disease that causes plaque to build up in the walls of the arteries of your heart. This plaque buildup is called atherosclerosis, and it happens over a long period of time.

Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances in your blood. Sometimes, the plaque will break open, causing a blood clot to form on the broken area.

If the clot is big enough, it can block the blood flow to your heart muscle, causing a heart attack.

A heart attack is an urgent message that your heart is starved for oxygen. When a clot blocks a heart vessel, oxygen-rich blood can't reach your heart. Your heart muscle begins to die and symptoms of a heart attack begin.

The sooner you get to the hospital, the sooner you can get treatment to help save your life and your heart muscle.

Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

When a heart attack strikes, call for help right away. Don't wait.
Unlike in the movies, many heart attacks are not sudden and intense. The symptoms can come on slowly. Common signs of a heart attack are:

  • Discomfort in the chest, such as pressure, squeezing, or pain
  • Pain or discomfort in the arm, jaw, neck, back, or stomach
  • Chest pain that increases in intensity, or doesn't go away with rest or nitroglycerin

Chest pain that happens with any other symptoms, like:

  • Sweating
  • Cool, clammy skin
  • Paleness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or fainting
  • Unexplained weakness or fatigue, or
  • Rapid or irregular pulse

Heart Attacks and Women

Like men, women usually have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. But women are more likely than men to have some of the other common symptoms. Call 911 right away if you have any of the following:

  • Sweating
  • Pressure
  • Nausea
  • Jaw pain
  • Arm or back pain, or
  • Shortness of breath

If you think you might be having a heart attack, don't wait to call for help and don't drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911 or your local emergency number right away.

Paramedics with the ambulance crew can quickly do a test to see if you're having a heart attack. This test is called an electrocardiogram. Getting a clot-busting drug or a procedure to open a blocked artery in the first hour of a heart attack could save your life.


Angina, also pronounced an-JINE-uh, is a painful burning, tightness, or pressure you might feel in your chest, back, neck, throat, or jaw.
It means part of your heart muscle isn't getting enough blood. This might be because you have a clogged artery. Angina is a sign that you may be having, or are about to have, a heart attack.

Call 911 right away if you have:

  • Stable angina symptoms that last longer than a few minutes, or go away and come back
  • Stable angina symptoms that don't go away with rest or medication
  • Any chest pain with shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea, or
  • Lightheadedness
  • Angina symptoms for the first time
  • Angina that doesn't get better with rest or nitroglycerine, or
  • Angina that is worse than usual or has changed

Heart attack symptoms may seem like other medical conditions or problems. Contact your health care provider if you're not sure.

Things to Remember

Angina is a sign that you may be having, or are about to have, a heart attack.
Angina means there is reduced blood flow to heart muscle. A heart attack means blood is blocked from reaching an area of heart muscle.
Women may experience heart attack symptoms that are different from what men experience.

What We Have Learned

A heart attack happens when blood and oxygen can't get to the heart muscle because of a blockage in an artery. True or False? The answer is true. A blocked artery can kill you, or damage your heart muscle. If you think you are having a heart attack, get emergency help right away.

If rest or nitroglycerine do not relieve angina, you should call 911. True or False? The answer is true. This is a sign that you're about to have a heart attack.