Health Library







Categories > Family Wellness > Visiting the doctor or hospital

Survival strategies: What to do in a heart emergency
First, know the signs
Then, respond
While you wait
At the hospital


CPR: a life lesson
CPR: a life lesson

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR), an emergency technique that delivers oxygen to a person’s lungs, allows blood to circulate in the body until medical help arrives. Without oxygen, a person can live only a few minutes. Although reading about it may help you understand the basics, CPR can only be mastered through practice in a certified course of instruction. Check with the hospital, the American Red Cross, the American Heart Association or your fire department for a class that teaches this lifesaving method.

  • “It’s only indigestion.”
  • “It’ll go away soon.”
  • “I’m too young for it to happen.”

It may be tempting to write off chest discomfort as the result of something you ate or just a fluke. But for over a million Americans last year, the discomfort wasn’t heartburn or a passing weak spell: It was a heart attack. Unfortunately, many people wait too long before seeking medical attention. Yet when it comes to a heart emergency, every moment counts. In fact, of all heart fatalities, nearly half occur within the first hour—before medical help arrives.

While no one wants to anticipate a heart attack, preparing for a cardiac crisis is one of the most important steps you can take toward a positive outcome. Following these important guidelines may help:

First, know the signs

Whether they strike you or a loved one, these symptoms should prompt an immediate reaction:

  • chest discomfort or pain that may feel heavy, tight or crushing
  • pain that radiates from the chest to the shoulder, back, arm, neck or jaw (it may also feel like indigestion or a burning beneath the breastbone)
  • prolonged pain in the upper abdomen
  • rapid or fluttering heartbeats
  • a feeling of weakness, light-headedness or dizziness
  • nausea, vomiting or intense sweating
  • difficulty breathing or shortness of breath
  • tingling in the hands, fingers or wrists
  • skin that looks grayish or pale or feels cold or clammy to the touch
  • a feeling of exhaustion or doom
  • edema (swelling), particularly of the lower legs and/or ankles
  • frequent angina attacks not caused by exertion

Some medical conditions, such as diabetes, mask heart attack symptoms. If you have a chronic condition, ask your doctor about any warning signs for which you should be on the alert.

Then, respond

Immediately dial 911. Try to remain calm and speak clearly. Remember not to hang up until the dispatcher tells you to do so. Be ready to provide the following information:

  • the phone number from which you are dialing
  • the address where you can be found and the name of the nearest cross street
  • your symptoms and general condition

While you wait

These simple steps can help limit damage to the heart muscle.

  • Chew an aspirin. Chewing an uncoated aspirin tablet—as opposed to swallowing it whole—will make the medication enter your bloodstream faster, helping to dissolve any clots blocking blood flow to your heart.
  • Let them know. Tell the paramedics about any medication you’re currently taking. It’s also a good idea to keep a list of those medications in your wallet, in your glove compartment and with a neighbor.

At the hospital

The emergency room of the nearest hospital is the best place for you to be. There, you will be given oxygen and pain medication. An electrocardiogram (ECG) will track your heart’s electrical activity. Other tests will be done to find out what caused your heart attack. If you arrive at the emergency room within hours of the onset of symptoms, you may receive clot-busting medicine to help restore healthy blood flow in the coronary arteries. Once your coronary arteries are clot free, your heart will be protected from further damage. That’s why it’s so important to get to the nearest hospital at the first sign of trouble.