It is important to recognize the signs of a heart attack, which can vary by person. Individuals must also know what to do in case of a heart attack.

The medical name for a heart attack is a myocardial infarction (MI).

It usually occurs because a coronary artery becomes blocked, reducing or stopping the nourishing blood supply to the heart muscle.

Chest pain is a common sign of a heart attack. However, the symptoms someone experiences can depend on their sex and age.

It is important to identify a heart attack as early as possible and seek prompt medical attention. Treatment can minimize damage and increase the chances of a full recovery.

This article examines the various symptoms of heart attacks and how these may vary in females and older adults. It also looks at risk factors, causes, and what to do in case of a heart attack.

Fast facts about heart attack

  • Common signs of a heart attack include chest pain, discomfort in one or both arms, and difficulty breathing.
  • Females may experience more subtle and seemingly unrelated symptoms of heart attack, such as sleep disturbances, nausea, and sudden weakness.
  • Older adults with diabetes or high blood pressure may be more likely to experience asymptomatic or silent heart attacks.
  • Seeking emergency medical care for any signs of a heart attack can save a person’s life and may help prevent permanent damage to the heart.
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People may associate chest pain as a typical heart attack symptom. However, a heart attack can affect the entire body, not just the heart.

Individuals of different ages and sexes may experience heart attack symptoms in varying ways. It is important to speak with a healthcare professional if a person experiences chest pain, discomfort, or shortness of breath that worsens. This is especially true if it occurs during times of rest.

Most heart attacks have several defining symptoms, which, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), include the following.

Chest pain

Heart attacks typically involve pain or discomfort in the chest’s middle or left side. It may feel like a tight, heavy squeezing, fullness, or uncomfortable pressure. Less commonly, it can feel like a sharp pain.

Difficulty breathing

Usually, this accompanies chest pain. However, shortness of breath may also begin before any chest discomfort.

Upper body pain

A person may feel pain or discomfort in one or both arms, typically the left one, which can radiate to the shoulders. This pain does not typically feel worse with movement, as with musculoskeletal or arthritis pain. There may also be pain in the neck, jaw, or back.

Feeling lightheaded

An individual may feel weak, faint, or break out into a cold sweat.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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Heart attack symptoms may show up differently in females and seem less evident or unrelated to heart problems.

The following are common heart attack symptoms in females that can occur with or without chest pain:

  • weakness that occurs suddenly
  • extreme shortness of breath
  • nausea, indigestion, or other digestive upsets
  • all over body aches
  • a general feeling of being unwell
  • discomfort in the back or upper body

Since people commonly associate heart attacks with chest pain, females may misread their symptoms and delay consulting a healthcare professional.

It is important that individuals, especially females, recognize heart attack symptoms that may be atypical and seek immediate medical care when necessary.

According to the National Institute on Aging (NIA), people who are 65 years old or older are more likely to experience a heart attack, stroke, or develop heart disease.

Older people who have diabetes or high blood pressure may also be more likely to experience asymptomatic or silent heart attacks.

During a silent heart attack, someone may experience no symptoms and feel relatively well apart from feeling unusually tired or short of breath. They may also show one or more of the signs relating to heart attacks in females.

The National Heart, Lung, And Blood Institute (NHLBI) states that swift action could save someone’s life in the case of a heart attack.

Doctors consider a heart attack a medical emergency. Even if an individual is not certain they are experiencing a heart attack, they should contact emergency services right away. Acting fast and seeking emergency treatment can help limit or prevent damage to the heart.

It is important for individuals to contact 911 for an ambulance in case of a heart attack and not drive themselves. This is because emergency medical services personnel can give a person life-saving medication and begin tests. Additionally, people arriving at the hospital via ambulance are often seen sooner.

The consequences of an untreated heart attack can be severe. People should always seek medical attention if they suspect one.

If someone experiences heart attack symptoms for more than an estimated 5 minutes, the heart’s muscle cells are at high risk of damage.

From the onset of symptoms, an individual only has a short amount of time before critical damage levels occur. Some types of heart attack may have more time before damage occurs. However, health experts consider all heart attacks as medical emergencies that require immediate treatment.

If the heart does not receive oxygenated blood, it cannot function properly, which can cause a heart attack. This can happen when a coronary artery is partially or fully blocked.

The most common cause of blocked coronary arteries is coronary heart disease.

When coronary heart disease occurs, fats and cholesterol can form deposits or plaques on the arterial walls, which doctors call atherosclerosis.

Over time, the plaques narrow the arteries, and eventually, this obstructs blood flow.

Using recreational drugs, such as cocaine, can also cause heart attacks.

Risk factors

Several factors can increase an individual’s risk of a heart attack. These include being age 65 years or over, being male, or having a family history of heart disease.

There are also modifiable factors that may increase the risk of heart attacks. These include:

It is possible to change, treat, or control the modifiable risk factors to reduce someone’s risk of experiencing a heart attack.

The following are answers to common questions about heart attacks.

What are the four silent signs of a heart attack?

Some people may not experience any symptoms of a silent heart attack. However, others may experience symptoms that seem unrelated to a heart attack. Four of these symptoms include prolonged fatigue, indigestion, shortness of breath, and dizziness.

How can you tell if a heart attack is coming?

For some people, a heart attack is sudden. However, they can also begin slowly with mild pain or discomfort. Signs include:

  • chest discomfort
  • discomfort in other parts of the body, such as:
    • one or both arms
    • jaw
    • back
    • neck
    • stomach
  • shortness of breath
  • cold sweats
  • lightheadedness
  • nausea

Can a heart attack be in the right arm?

A heart attack can cause pain in one or both arms. Although it usually affects the left arm, it can also affect the right arm.

Can a heart attack pain start in the right arm?

Pain from a heart attack typically begins in the chest. It may then feel like the pain is spreading down either one or both arms and to other parts of the body.

Although most people are familiar with a heart attack’s common signs, such as chest pain and breathlessness, they may not realize that females and older adults can experience heart attacks differently.

In these groups, heart attack symptoms such as indigestion, sleep disturbances, and sudden weakness can seem unrelated.

If someone is experiencing any symptoms that may relate to a heart attack, they should seek immediate medical care.

Prompt treatment can save a person’s life and prevent permanent heart damage from occurring.

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