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Act fast: It could be a heart attack

In the movies, when someone has a heart attack, he or she clutches his or her chest and keels over. Everyone knows what’s happening, and people jump into action. In real life, it’s not always that dramatic. Many heart attacks start slowly and may not even include chest pain. Often, people think their symptoms are a sign of something else, like heartburn, or they’re embarrassed to cause a scene, so they do nothing. Even people who’ve already had a heart attack may not recognize their symptoms, as each attack can be dramatically different. So most people having a heart attack wait too long to get medical help. That delay can lead to serious heart damage and even death.

If you’re with someone who you suspect is having a heart attack, you need to take action quickly. What to do first? Read on.

Know the signs. Sure, chest pain is the most common symptom, but someone having a heart attack may also have pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach; shortness of breath; and other symptoms such as nausea or light-headedness. He or she may even break out in a cold sweat.

Pick up the phone immediately. Even if the person assures you it’s not a heart attack, call for emergency medical help within the first five minutes of the attack. The faster you move, the faster your loved one will receive treatment, and many heart attack treatments work best when given within an hour of the attack.

Get a ride. You’re better off taking an ambulance than driving the person to the hospital, because emergency workers can start treatment en route to the hospital, re-start the heart if it stops beating and relay the patient’s information to the emergency department before you get there. That’s why people having a heart attack who take an ambulance to the hospital tend to get treated faster.

Ask about medication. Some people with a heart condition carry nitroglycerin pills, to be taken in case of a heart attack. And some doctors recommend chewing an aspirin during a heart attack. Don’t put off calling for emergency help to offer these pills, but ask the person on the phone if you should give your loved one either drug.

Check it out online

Download a free heart attack survival plan at www.nhlbi.nih.gov/actintime/saha/surv_pln.htm.