How Do I Know if I'm Having a Heart Attack?

Your arteries carry blood, oxygen and nutrients to the heart and to the rest of the body. A heart attack occurs when an artery of the heart (also known as a “coronary artery”) is suddenly closed or blocked by a blood clot.

Although the closure happens suddenly, it often results from plaque that has built up in the arteries over time. This process is called atherosclerosis. It is also known as hardening of the arteries. When the artery closes, the supply of blood and oxygen to the heart drops suddenly and sharply. This lack of oxygen causes damage to the heart.

Signs and symptoms

Most of the signs and symptoms of a heart attack are the same for both men and women. Someone having a heart attack may feel:

  • chest pain, which may also include feelings of:
    • tightness
    • discomfort
    • crushing pain
    • heaviness
    • pressure
    • squeezing
    • fullness
    • burning.
  • spreading pain, which may spread out:
    • from the chest area
    • down one or both arms
    • to the neck, jaw or shoulders.
  • shortness of breath
  • paleness, sweating or overall weakness
  • nausea, vomiting and maybe indigestion
  • anxiety or fear.

If you notice any of these symptoms:

  • Tell someone.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number to get help right away.

Act right away

Many people find it hard to believe they are having a heart attack. They convince themselves that the symptoms are something else and that they will go away. On average, Canadians wait almost five hours before getting medical help for their symptoms. Yet half of heart attack deaths happen within two hours of the first signs. The faster you get help, the better your chances of surviving a heart attack. New therapies and drugs can reduce the damage and save lives if treatment begins soon enough. Don't worry that your symptoms could end up being a false alarm or a sign of some other condition. Not getting help could cost you your life.

For women only

Women are more likely to feel a vague chest discomfort rather than a sharp pain or tightness, but the milder symptoms don't mean that a woman's heart attack is any less severe than a man's heart attack. Any symptoms of a heart attack should be taken seriously. Women are usually older than men when they have their first heart attack.

There is a higher risk of heart disease for women who:

  • smoke
  • take birth control pills
  • have gone through menopause.

Additional resources


Prepared by the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada and modified by Alberta Health Services. This FAQ appeared originally on the Canadian Health Network Web site

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