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What to Do in a Heart Attack Emergency

By Justin Haagen on Aug 09, 2023


Each year, about 805,000 Americans have a heart attack – averaging out to about one every 40 seconds.

A heart attack is caused by a blockage or spasm of a coronary artery. It’s essentially a plumbing issue with the heart. This interrupted blood flow causes the heart muscle to die.

Heart attacks are the leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest (SCA). While they can be fatal, immediate treatment can dramatically increase the chances of survival.

Here’s how to recognize signs of a heart attack and how you should respond.

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack

The signs of a heart attack usually occur suddenly. However, they may come and go or appear with any combination of symptoms.

Heart attack signs include:

  • Chest pain, discomfort or pressure
  • Radiating pain or discomfort in the left arm, both arms, upper back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath
  • Feeling weak, lightheaded or faint
  • Cold, clammy, sweaty skin
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Unexplained fatigue

Heart attack symptoms vary from person to person. For example, women are somewhat more likely to have shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, unusual tiredness (sometimes for days) and pain in the back, shoulders and jaw.

Responding to a heart attack

Don’t delay calling 911 if you suspect a heart attack. The first few minutes are the most critical.

  1. Call 911. Don’t transport the person to the hospital yourself.
  2. Place the person in a comfortable position. This will usually be a sitting position. With consent, help loosen restrictive clothing to make the person more comfortable and continue to calmly reassure the person.
  3. Help the person take any prescribed chest pain medication. For example, they may have been prescribed nitroglycerin.
  4. Encourage them to chew and swallow 1 adult aspirin tablet (325-mg) or 2-4 low-dose “baby” aspirins (81-mg each). Make sure the person is alert enough to chew and swallow. Do not offer aspirin if the person has a known allergy to aspirin or has been advised by a healthcare provider not to take aspirin.

A heart attack can quickly progress to sudden cardiac arrest. Be prepared to give the person CPR and use an AED if you have access to one.

Interested in learning how to respond to other emergencies? Take a CPR, AED, and First Aid class near you.


I thought she was awesome. Normally CPR informational assemblies are not interesting, but the way she broke up the information made her presentation interesting.
Alexa, student