11 Ways to Survive a Heart Attack

by Matt McMillen Health Writer

Just 40 or 50 years ago, nearly half of all heart attacks ended in death. Today, nearly 90% of people who have one survive due to faster diagnosis and treatments, as well as improvements in cardiac care. Knowing the symptoms of heart attack—and what to do if you or someone you’re with experiences them—may help you in the urgent moments before the ambulance arrives. We hope that you’ll never need to make use of any of these heart-smart tips (but read on, just in case). Being prepared just might save your life.

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First, Get a Handle on Your Risk

Step one: Discuss your risk for a heart attack with your doctor. Has a parent or a sibling had a heart attack? Did it happen before age 55 in women or 65 in men? If so, your own odds are likely above average for having one, too. Do you have uncontrolled high cholesterol or blood pressure? Do you smoke? These risk factors also boost your chances of a heart attack, increasing your need to prepare for the possibility. That way, you’re less likely to be caught off guard if you do experience symptoms.

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Prepare Your Family and Trusted Friends

If you’re at risk of a heart attack, sit down with those close to you and discuss the symptoms and what to do in case of emergency. “Family and friends should be educated about your cardiac condition, including the warning signs to be familiar with,” says cardiologist Guy Mintz, M.D., the director of cardiovascular health and lipidology at Sandra Atlas Bass Heart Hospital in Manhasset, NY. Tell them what they may need to do. In addition to calling 911, this might include administering cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) if you stop breathing and lose consciousness. “If you are unfamiliar with CPR, a 911 operator can talk you through it while you're waiting for the ambulance,” Dr. Mintz adds.

Know the Symptoms of Heart Attack in Men

If you recognize what’s happening in your body you’ll be better prepared to take action quickly. According to Satjit Bhusri, M.D., a cardiologist at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York, NY, the following symptoms are typical in men experiencing a heart attack:

  • Chest pain that may include pressure or a squeezing sensation
  • Shortness of breath
  • Profuse sweating
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pain in the arms, neck, stomach, or jaw
  • Other pain or discomfort that is unexplained
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Know How Symptoms of Heart Attack in Women May Be Different

For years—maybe, for always?—women’s heart attack symptoms were measured against typical symptoms in men. Only in the past decade or two has research shown that women’s heart attacks are not always identical to their male counterparts. “Many people, especially women, feel different sensations,” says Dr. Bhusri. These differing symptoms might include:

  • Dizziness
  • Fainting
  • Palpitations (when your heart rate is too high or irregular)
  • Numbness and tingling of the chest, left jaw, and left arm

Seek Help Immediately

If you even think you might be having a heart attack, call 911 right away. “Do not wait. Do not spend time with self-diagnosis,” says Dr. Mintz. The faster you get treated, the less damage your heart will suffer. “Time equals heart-muscle preservation, so don’t waste it,” he urges. Also, be sure to go to a hospital and not an urgent care center, which won’t be properly equipped to treat your heart attack. P.S.: If it turns out that it wasn’t a heart attack? So, what? You did the right thing. It's advised that if you are experiencing heart attack symptoms that a friend or family member aid in taking you to the hospital.

And Seek Help ASAP Even If You Think It's Heartburn

Sometimes, a heart attack feels like heartburn, and it’s not always easy to tell the difference. “Many patients have suffered heart attacks while saying, ‘One good belch and I’ll be fine,’” Dr. Mintz says. Still, while research suggests that most trips to the ER for chest pain are not, in fact, heart attacks, if you experience ongoing pain in your chest that feels like heartburn, play it safe. Call 911. Better to burp in the ambulance on the way to the ER than to mistakenly assume your heart is fine when it needs help.

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Chew Some Aspirin While You Wait for the Ambulance

Heart attacks occur when a clot forms and blocks the flow of blood to your heart. Aspirin works quickly to counter those clots to help blood flow more easily. After you’ve called 911, chew—don’t swallow whole—four baby aspirins (81 mg) or one adult (325 mg) aspirin, Dr. Mintz recommends. Chewing helps get the aspirin into your bloodstream quickly so that it can start to do its work. Keep in mind: You should avoid aspirin if you are allergic to it or your doctor has advised you never to take it. Consider asking your doctor if you are safe to take aspirin in case of an emergency.

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Take Your Nitroglycerin

If—and only if—you have been prescribed nitroglycerin for heart disease, now’s a very good time to take it, says Dr. Bhusri, with a baby aspirin, too. “This medicine should be taken as soon as symptoms of a heart attack occur,” he adds. “The medication acts by relaxing the arteries of the heart.” It will help increase blood flow to your heart as well as ease your chest pain—and, with luck, buy you some important time until the paramedics arrive.

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Try to Remain Calm

It might seem impossible in the moment—but not panicking during a heart attack may help you survive. “This is of utmost importance,” says Dr. Bhusri. “Remaining calm lowers both your blood pressure and your heart rate, and this in turn reduces stress on your already vulnerable heart.” Remind yourself that help is on the way. Stay on the line with the operator after you call 911 and until paramedics arrive—his or her voice may help soothe you. Dr. Mintz urges you to sit down. He suggests you do your best to breathe slowly to avoid hyperventilation, which will use up precious oxygen.

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Tell the Paramedics About Your Drug List

In the middle of a crisis you may not be able to recall or communicate all the medications you take. Always keep a complete list of your drugs, including the dosages, with you in your wallet or purse, says Dr. Mintz. Are you allergic to any medications? If so, add the names of those drugs to your list. This information could be vital for both the paramedics who administer first aid and the medical professionals who treat you in the ER. Finally, make sure your loved ones have current copies of your list in case they need to speak for you.

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Let the Doctors Do Their Work

Once you get to the hospital, your loved ones can deal with the insurance, allergies, and medications information. In the emergency room you might be given IV fluids, a physical exam, an electrocardiogram (EKG) to monitor for any abnormal heart rhythms, blood tests to confirm heart attack, medications like nitroglycerin, additional oxygen, or even a cardiac catheterization (a flexible tube inserted into a blood vessel) to open a blocked artery. Every heart attack is different. If you’ve followed these steps, you’ve done everything you can do to survive yours.

Matt McMillen
Meet Our Writer
Matt McMillen

Matt McMillen has been a freelance health reporter since 2002. In that time he’s written about everything from acupuncture to the Zika virus. He covers breaking medical news and the latest medical studies, profiles celebrities, and crafts easy to digest overviews of medical conditions. His work has appeared, both online and in print, in The Washington Post, WebMD Magazine, Diabetes Forecast, AARP, and elsewhere.