The basics of a heart attack

February 12, 2019

An American has a heart attack about every 40 seconds. While there are other types of heart disease, such as angina or sudden cardiac arrest, heart attacks are the most common manifestations of heart disease.

The U.S. Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion and the American Heart Association offer the following information about the signs of a heart attack and what to do if you or someone around is experiencing symptoms.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack occurs when coronary arteries that bring oxygen to the heart are partially or fully blocked, which means the heart isn’t getting enough of the oxygen it needs to work. That blockage is caused when arteries become narrowed because of a buildup of fat, cholesterol and plaque. That process, which generally occurs over a long time, is called atherosclerosis.

When plaque breaks off, a blood clot forms around it, which can block flow of oxygenated blood to the heart. When the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen, the muscle tissue is damaged and can even die, which causes a heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction.


• Pain, discomfort, a feeling of pressure, squeezing or fullness on the left side or center of the chest.

• Pain or discomfort in the arms, back, shoulders, neck, jaw or stomach above the belly button.

• Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing.

• A feeling similar to heartburn or stomachache.

• Feeling dizzy, lightheaded or more fatigued than normal.

• Breaking out in a cold sweat.

Symptoms can come on suddenly or slowly, so pay attention to your body if you notice these symptoms. ODPHP recommends talking to your doctor if you’ve been unusually tired for several days or if you develop new pain or difficulty breathing. If you or someone is experiencing these symptoms, call 911. Treating a heart attack immediately is vital to keeping the permanent damage to the heart to a minimum.

After a heart attack

How much damage your heart suffers will depend on the amount of tissue supplied by the blocked artery and how much time elapsed between injury and treatment. Most people do recover from heart attacks, even severe attacks, though the heart may be weakened and not able to pump as much blood as it could before the attack.

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