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How to spot and stop a heart attack or stroke

No one wants to think about the frightening possibility of facing a heart attack or a stroke. But if more people—family members, bystanders and the victims themselves—understood the warning signs better, they may help save more lives.

Slow to spot

Both a heart attack and a stroke can send warning signals hours, days, even weeks ahead of time. Chest pain that’s triggered by exertion and relieved by rest may be an early predictor of a heart attack. In women, older adults and people with diabetes, symptoms may come and go, are often vague and may not be recognized.

Too many people wait too long to get help, and more damage is done with each passing minute. But new clot-busting heart attack drugs administered within one hour can stop a heart attack in progress. And stroke medication can stop and even reverse brain damage if given within three hours.

Getting help early is key

If you suspect either a heart attack or a stroke, seek emergency care immediately. (See “Fast Action Saves Lives.”) Don’t waste time calling your doctor, and never endanger yourself and others by driving yourself to the hospital. Emergency medical services have equipment to give you lifesaving first aid on the spot. Plus, you’ll get quicker treatment at the hospital if you arrive in an ambulance.

A final tip: If you suspect a heart attack, chew an aspirin. Aspirin inhibits blood clotting during a heart attack and can decrease the death rate by 25 percent. Note: Do not chew an aspirin if you suspect a stroke. Aspirin can make a stroke worse.

Fast action saves lives

Any combination of these signs requires immediate medical assistance:

Heart attack

  • pain, pressure, squeezing or a sense of fullness in the chest
  • pain that spreads to one or both arms or to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • shortness of breath before or during chest discomfort
  • nausea, vomiting, dizziness, anxiety, weakness, fatigue, palpitations, cold sweats, fainting or paleness

Note: Call for emergency care if someone is unresponsive and not breathing normally.


  • sudden numbness or weakness on one side of the body in the face, arm or leg
  • confusion or difficulty speaking or understanding
  • sudden dimness or loss of vision in one or both eyes
  • unexplained dizziness, loss of balance or coordination, falling or fainting
  • sudden severe headache with no known cause
  • sudden nausea, fever or vomiting

Note: Any of the above signs lasting only a few minutes may be due to a ministroke, or transient ischemic attack (TIA). A TIA is a serious indicator that the brain is not getting enough oxygen and that a full stroke may soon follow.