Ask the Cardiologist About Heart Attacks

Frequently asked questions about heart attacks.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when an atherosclerotic plaque, which may have been present for years, becomes unstable and ruptures. That exposes chemicals in the bloodstream that causes a blood clot to form. That blood clot, partially or completely, blocks off the artery, so the heart can’t get blood flow. Then the heart muscle starts to die.

What are the warning signs of a heart attack?

  • Chest discomfort, pressure, fullness, squeezing at the center or left side of chest that lasts more than a few minutes – or the onset may be sudden or gradual, and may wax and wane.
  • Pain in other areas: pain may radiate to one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or the stomach.
  • Associated symptoms may include sweatiness, nausea or feeling lightheaded
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort. 

Are women's symptoms of a heart attack different than men's symptoms?

Women may have different signs of heart attack. Men and women both have chest discomfort, but women are more likely to have the other common symptoms, including:

  • Nausea and vomiting. “I thought I had the flu.”
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Back or jaw pain.
  • Women may also have symptoms at rest, sleep and with stress.
  • Both women and their doctors may tend to minimize symptoms. 

What should you do if you think you're having a heart attack?

According to the American Heart Association:

  • If symptoms last for more than a few minutes, call 9-1-1 (or you area's emergency response number if you live in an area without 9-1-1 service).
  • Even if you're not sure it's a heart attack,  don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1 or your emergency response number.
  • Do not attempt to travel by private car. It is best to call Emergency Medical Services (EMS) for rapid transport by ambulance to an appropriate hospital emergency room.
  • Calling 9-1-1 is almost always the fastest way to get treatment. EMS staff can begin lifesaving treatment when they arrive — up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. Usually patients with chest pain receive faster treatment at the hospital when they arrive by ambulance.
  • EMS staff are trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped.
  • Time is of the essence! When a coronary artery is blocked, heart muscle damage begins and over the next hours becomes irreversible. The earlier an artery can be opened, the less heart muscle damage will occur. The earlier the artery is opened, the lower the chance of dying.

Washington University cardiologists with the Heart & Vascular Center diagnose and treats diseases of the heart and blood vessels including:

  • Cardiac care
  • Heart disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Congestive heart failure
  • Heart rhythm problems (arrhythmia)
  • Heart disease prevention

Office location
1020 North Mason Road, Suite 100
Medical Office Building 3
on the campus of Barnes-Jewish West County Hospital
Creve Coeur, Missouri 63141
 

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