Key Points about Heart Attacks

  • Heart attacks are caused by blockages that prevent blood from flowing to the heart.
  • Blockages can be caused by collections of fat and cholesterol in the arteries, or by a coronary artery spasm.
  • Common symptoms of a heart attack include severe chest pain, nausea, sweating, lightheadedness and trouble breathing.
  • Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, as prompt treatment is required to prevent permanent damage to the heart.
Common related conditions
Heart (Cardiovascular) Disease Hypotension (Low Blood Pressure) Pericarditis Hypertension (High Blood Pressure) Hypertrophic Cardiomyopathy

Overview

A heart attack results when the flow of blood to the heart becomes blocked, often by a collection of fat and cholesterol in the coronary arteries that breaks free from the artery walls. This blockage of blood flow to the heart can cause symptoms such as chest pain, nausea, sweating, lightheadedness and trouble breathing.

There are many factors that increase one’s risk of suffering a heart attack. People who smoke tobacco, are obese, have diabetes, have high stress levels, or who have a family history of heart disease are more likely to experience a cardiac event.

Talk to your doctor about lowering your heart attack risk. If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately.

Heart attack causes

A heart attack is caused by a blockage that prevents blood from flowing to the heart. These blockages are often plaques in the coronary arteries made up of fat and cholesterol, which break free from the artery walls.

The blockages that cause heart attacks can also result from a coronary artery spasm. These spasms can be triggered by using cocaine or tobacco.

Heart attack risk factors

You may be at an increased risk of suffering a heart attack if you:

  • Smoke tobacco
  • Are a man over age 45
  • Are a woman over age 55
  • Are obese
  • Have diabetes or metabolic syndrome
  • Have family members who have suffered heart attacks
  • Have high stress levels
  • Use illegal drugs, particularly amphetamines
  • Have an autoimmune disorder
  • Do not exercise regularly
  • Have high blood pressure or high cholesterol

Heart attack symptoms

Heart attack symptoms can vary, but may include:

  • A feeling of pain, tightness or pressure in the chest
  • Pain that spreads to the arms, neck, back, jaw or abdomen
  • Nausea
  • Heartburn or indigestion
  • Trouble breathing
  • Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
  • Sweating
  • Fatigue

Heart attack complications

A heart attack can damage your heart permanently, leading to complications such as:

  • Arrhythmias, or abnormal heart beats
  • Cardiac arrest
  • Chronic heart failure

Heart attack diagnosis

If you are experiencing heart attack symptoms, your doctor will:

  • Review your symptoms
  • Check your pulse, temperature and blood pressure

Your doctor may also:

  • Set up an electrocardiogram (ECG) to assess the heart muscle’s functioning
  • Order a blood test to look for any markers that signal a heart attack

Heart attack treatment

Heart attacks must be treated by restoring the flow of blood to the heart, to prevent serious damage. A heart attack may be treated with:

  • Medications, such as aspirin or an antiplatelet agent
  • Procedures, such as coronary bypass surgery, angioplasty or stenting
  • Cardiac rehabilitation, after a cardiac event

When to seek care

Call 911 or your local emergency number immediately if you are experiencing severe chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack.

Next Steps

Talk to your doctor about lowering your heart attack risk. If you are at risk, or if you have already experienced a heart attack, your doctor can recommend specific lifestyle modifications and prescribe medications to prevent a cardiac event.