Heart Attack FAQ

What are 4 warning signs of a heart attack?

​​Heart attack signs and symptoms tend to start slowly as a discomfort before progressing. The 4 main signs of a heart attack are as follows:

  • Angina (chest pain): discomfort in the centre of the chest lasting more than a few minutes. For some individuals, this discomfort comes and goes. It can be described as squeezing or pressure being applied or pain. This is the most common sign.
  • Discomfort in upper body regions: this tends to be pain or discomfort in either (or both) arms, the back, jaw or stomach. 
  • Shortness of breath: this sign is sometimes seen without the concurrence of angina.
  • Other common signs: although more common in women, other signs include cold sweats, nausea, and lightheadedness.1 

What is a mild heart attack?

A mild heart attack is medically known as non-ST elevation myocardial infarction (NSTEMI). This name refers to the heartbeat seen on the ECG of a mild heart attack. This type of heart attack involves the blood flow through one of the coronary arteries being partially obstructed, causing a decrease in the blood supply to the heart muscle, limiting oxygen levels. Although mild heart attacks have a better outcome, they should still be taken seriously in order to prevent further heart attacks or strokes as the risk of further cardiac events increases.2 

How sharp is heart attack pain?

The chest pain experienced during a heart attack isn’t usually described as sharp or knife-like. Instead it is almost always a feeling of pain or pressure in the chest; feelings of tightness, squeezing, or even burning sensations. It’s usually a gradual onset rather than sudden as well as extending out into other regions (such as the arms, back, or jaw) rather than being localised to a single area.3

What is the difference between panic and heart attack?

​​The symptoms of a panic attack and heart attack are quite similar, however there are subtle differences to tell them apart:

  • Both involve chest discomfort, however with a panic attack it’s localised to the chest. The pain can spread to other areas during a heart attack.
  • The chest pain in a heart attack feels like pressure is being applied (squeezing or burning sensation). In contrast, panic attacks often cause a sharp or stabbing pain, alongside a racing heart. 
  • The symptoms of panic attacks aren’t long lasting, with them usually ending within a few minutes. Heart attack symptoms don’t stop and instead may ease up before returning continuously.4

Can you have a heart attack from being scared?

Although extremely rare, you can be ‘scared to death’. This rare phenomenon tends to occur in individuals with heart conditions as the intense emotion triggers the heart attack. 

Medically, the condition is called ‘stress-induced cardiomyopathy’ and is a result of the body’s natural fight or flight mechanism after significant physical or emotional stress. This is also known as ‘broken heart syndrome’ as the emotional stress causes the heart attack-like symptoms and there is temporary dysfunction or failure of the heart muscle. However, unlike a heart attack, there’s no blockage in the arteries so treatment tends to be less invasive for the cardiomyopathy.5

How treatable is a heart attack?

With modern medicine, heart attacks are much more treatable and the risk of fatality has decreased quite a lot. Heart attacks are still time sensitive matters, however, as treatment must be delivered within a certain time period to improve the outcome. After having a heart attack and treatment, lifestyle changes may also have to be implemented such as a decrease in fatty foods, eating a balanced diet, not smoking, and engaging in physical activity. It may also involve taking daily medications such as blood thinners.

How quickly should a heart attack be treated?

The quicker a heart attack is suspected, the quicker tests can be done to confirm and therefore treat. A heart attack is a serious medical issue and demands rapid action for the best outcome and treatment options. Even mild heart attacks require immediate intervention. This is because once you’ve had a heart attack, the risk of further cardiac episodes increases considerably. 

How do you know a heart attack is starting?

Some heart attacks have a sudden onset, meaning no warning signs beforehand. However, many individuals have warning symptoms from hours in advance to maybe even weeks in advance. This tends to be in the form of recurrent chest pain that cannot be remedied through rest and taking it easy. This early warning sign is caused as a result of a temporary decrease in blood flow to the heart. This feeling can fluctuate as the blood flow decreases and returns to normal, before a heart attack occurs.6 

You can tell a heart attack is starting when you begin to experience the warning signs.

What should you do immediately when having a heart attack?

If you think you or anyone around you is having a heart attack, you should call or ask someone nearby to call 999 for an ambulance immediately. The individual with the suspected heart attack should also sit down (preferably on the floor) as soon as possible and try to remain calm. If they are not allergic to aspirin, it is recommended to take a 300mg dose if it’s within reach.7 

Why is it called a heart attack?

Medically, a heart attack is known as a ‘myocardial infarction.’ Myocardium refers to the heart muscle, and infarction means obstruction of blood supply (containing oxygen) to an organ or tissue, causing cell death.

Together these words describe the heart being deprived of oxygen and thereby causing death of the heart muscle cells. Typically, this is a result of a blockage in an artery. 


  1. American Heart Association. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack [Internet]. www.heart.org. 2016. Available from: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack
  2. What Is a “Mild Heart Attack” (and Is It a Big Deal, or Not)? [Internet]. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic; 2020. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/what-is-a-mild-heart-attack-and-is-it-a-big-deal-or-not/
  3. Publishing HH. Chest pain: A heart attack or something else? [Internet]. Harvard Health. 2020. Available from: https://www.health.harvard.edu/heart-health/chest-pain-a-heart-attack-or-something-else
  4. How to Tell the Difference Between a Panic Attack and a Heart Attack [Internet]. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic; 2021. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/the-difference-between-panic-attacks-and-heart-attacks/
  5. It’s True (But Rare) That You Can Be Scared to Death [Internet]. Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic. Cleveland Clinic; 2020. Available from: https://health.clevelandclinic.org/its-true-we-can-be-scared-to-death/
  6. Mayo Clinic. Heart attack - Symptoms and causes [Internet]. Mayo Clinic. Mayo Clinic; 2018. Available from: https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-attack/symptoms-causes/syc-20373106
  7. British Heart Foundation. Heart Attack [Internet]. Bhf.org.uk. British Heart Foundation; 2019. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack

Aisha Yasin

Biomedical Science - Biomedical Sciences, General, Lancaster University, England

"I am a recent biomedical science graduate, with ambitions to go on to do post-graduate medicine. During my biomedical science degree I have done a variety of modules including anatomy, physiology, clinical biochemistry and many more... Currently working as a healthcare assistant for P&O Cruises"

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