How Do You Know If You Are Having A Heart Attack?

  • Arianna Maviglia Maastricht University - MSc in European Public Health Governance & Leadership


Would you be able to understand if you were having a heart attack? Do you know the symptoms, how they differ between men and women, the risk factors and how to treat them? Learning these notions can save lives, your life and the one of those around you. For this reason, it is important to spread the word and educate ourselves. 

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack

Timeliness is also a very important element since the later you seek treatment to restore blood flow, the greater the damage caused to the heart muscle.

Common symptoms

According to the NHS, a heart attack is defined as a serious medical emergency. It is the result of a sudden block of the supply of blood to the heart, usually caused by a blood clot.

The following symptoms are considered most common in the case of a heart attack (NHS, 2019). 

Chest discomfort

Chest pain is one of the main symptoms of a heart attack. It is described as a sense of pressure, tightness and heaviness in your chest. However, having chest pain does not necessarily imply that one is having a heart attack. 

When is chest pain a heart attack? 

Chest pain is usually considered the first symptom but is usually not the only one. It may be a symptom of a heart attack if the pain is located in the centre or on the left side of the chest and if the feeling of discomfort lasts for more than a few minutes. If the pain is inconstant, meaning that it goes away and then returns, it might hint that you are experiencing a heart attack. 

Some people described the sense of discomfort not only as a sense of pressure applied on the chest but also as an uncomfortable squeezing and a sense of fullness of the chest. 

Discomfort in the upper parts of the body

Another symptom that can help you understand if you are experiencing a heart attack is discomfort and pain in the upper parts of your body. It may be located in one arm or both of them. It may also be in your shoulders, in the back, in your stomach or your neck and jaw. 

It can be more than one place at once. Usually, you can get the feeling as if the discomfort is spreading from the chest to the arms, usually the left one.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath and feeling breathless are common symptoms of a heart attack. They can occur with or without chest pain and sometimes, according to the experience of survivors, this symptom can precede chest pain. Shortness of breath is also a normal symptom during recovery from a heart attack.


Nausea is also a very common symptom of a heart attack. You might feel sick without vomiting, or you might be sick and feel the urge to vomit. This symptom is often associated with lightheadedness and a sense of dizziness. 


Sweating is a less common symptom but it still is an important signal that may suggest that something is wrong. Specifically, excessive sweating and breaking out in a cold sweat are symptoms of a heart attack, often to be associated with the other previously cited most common symptoms. 


Dizziness can present itself as a symptom. Feeling lightheaded, weak and on the verge of fainting for instance is common during a heart attack. It is often associated with nausea and fatigue.


A sense of unexpected and unprecedented tiredness and fatigue is a less common but still existent symptom of a sudden heart attack.

Other symptoms

Heart attack may include coughing, wheezing, a sense of panic and anxiety similar to the one experienced during anxiety or panic attacks. 

How do heart attack symptoms vary between men and women?

Heart attacks vary between men and women, and so do the symptoms. This is a crucial notion to save lives, especially for women. Indeed, the most well-known symptoms of heart attack are typically seen with males, but not necessarily with females.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there is a need for an increase in awareness so that women can more easily detect the symptoms immediately and seek help. 

The most common symptom for men is chest discomfort or chest pain (angina). For women on the other hand, though chest pain is a common symptom that may occur, females are more likely compared to men to experience symptoms which are often overlooked, such as shortness of breath, pain in their back and/or jaw, nausea or vomiting along with a sense of fatigue and weakness. (CDC, 2020).

The main difference between women and men is that women may not experience chest pain at all.Though it is the most well-known symptom of heart attack, they might not be able to recognize it when they are having it and do not seek treatment in a sufficiently timely manner. 

What to do if you believe you are having a heart attack?

The first thing to do if you are experiencing a heart attack (Or if you suspect you are) is to call an ambulance. It is important to do it as soon as the symptoms appear because every minute matters. 

While waiting for the arrival of the ambulance, it may help, given that you are not allergic to aspirin, to chew and then swallow a tablet of aspirin of 300 mg if possible since it helps to thin the blood and provides relief as it helps to bring the blood flow to the heart back to normal.

Causes and risk factors of a heart attack

Coronary heart disease (CDH) is the number one cause of heart attacks globally. It is a major cause of death in the UK and the whole world. This condition implies that the major blood vessels supplying the heart get clogged with plaques, which are deposits of cholesterol. This non-communicable disease is associated with high cholesterol, diabetes or high blood pressure. 

Other risk factors include smoking, excessive consumption of alcohol, an unhealthy diet and being obese or heavily overweight.


After being recovered to the hospital, treatment depends on the seriousness of the situation and on how timely the intervention was. The main treatments are:

  • Relying on medicines to dissolve the blood clots that cause it
  • Intervening through surgery to help restore blood to the heart

How fatal are heart attacks?

Fatality of heart attacks depends on different elements such as the age of the patient, timeliness of the intervention, severity of the heart attack and whether complications arise or not. Luckily, according to Harvard, today more than 90% of people survive myocardial infarction (Harvard, 2022). This is possible because of the improvements in technologies and treatment and the ability of doctors to treat smaller heart attacks.


To recover, it is important to implement changes to your lifestyle and undergo cardiac rehabilitation. 

Lifestyle changes

Examples to try and implement include: 

  • Exercising more, e.g. walking, cycling, running
  • Having a healthy diet, e.g. plenty of fruit and vegetables, lean protein, eating less red meat and processed foods
  • Quitting smoking
  • Stress management, e.g. meditation, yoga
  • Taking prescribed medications

Cardiac rehabilitation

Cardiac rehabilitation is a program led by a team of experts to help you to recover. The team includes healthcare experts, nutrition specialists, mental health professionals and physical therapists. This program includes exercises and physical activity, education about healthy living, including healthy eating and managing your stress.


Recognizing heart attack symptoms is crucial for swift intervention. Signs include chest discomfort, upper body pain, shortness of breath, nausea, sweating, dizziness, and fatigue. Women may experience atypical symptoms. 

Call an ambulance immediately if a heart attack is suspected, and consider chewing aspirin. Causes include coronary heart disease linked to factors like high cholesterol, diabetes, smoking, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, and obesity. 

Treatment involves medications or surgery, with a positive outlook due to advancements in technology. Recovery includes lifestyle changes and cardiac rehabilitation. Raising awareness is vital for saving lives.

This content is purely informational and isn’t medical guidance. It shouldn’t replace professional medical counsel. Always consult your physician regarding treatment risks and benefits. See our editorial standards for more details.

Get our health newsletter

Get daily health and wellness advice from our medical team.
Your privacy is important to us. Any information you provide to this website may be placed by us on our servers. If you do not agree do not provide the information.

Arianna Maviglia

Maastricht University - MSc, European Public Health Governance & Leadership

As a passionate and motivated public health graduate, I believe that good communication is key to improving people's health, and I am committed to finding ways to make medical information more understandable and relevant for different audiences. I have experience in medical writing and a background in political sciences, with a focus on public health and global governance. I am committed to advocating for policies that promote health equity and addressing the root causes of health disparities, enhancing health literacy and promoting scientific communication.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked * presents all health information in line with our terms and conditions. It is essential to understand that the medical information available on our platform is not intended to substitute the relationship between a patient and their physician or doctor, as well as any medical guidance they offer. Always consult with a healthcare professional before making any decisions based on the information found on our website.
Klarity is a citizen-centric health data management platform that enables citizens to securely access, control and share their own health data. Klarity Health Library aims to provide clear and evidence-based health and wellness related informative articles. 
Klarity / Managed Self Ltd
Alum House
5 Alum Chine Road
Westbourne Bournemouth BH4 8DT
VAT Number: 362 5758 74
Company Number: 10696687

Phone Number:

 +44 20 3239 9818