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Symptoms and Causes of a Heart Attack

Plus, the Ulta Lab Tests You Need Diagnose Your Heart Health
February 27, 2023
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Heart attacks are extremely common in the United States and are often the result of unhealthy lifestyle choices. The good news is there is plenty you can do to lower your risk.

In this post we share vital information about heart attacks, including:

  • What they are,
  • Early warning signs,
  • Common symptoms,
  • Risk factors,
  • What to do if you or a loved one is experiencing one,
  • Treatment options,
  • And the Ulta Lab Tests you need to gain a better understanding of your current heart health.

What Is a Heart Attack?

Your heart muscle needs oxygen to survive. A heart attack is a deadly medical emergency in which the tissue in the heart muscle begins to die because it’s not getting enough oxygen.

Blocked coronary arteries, a common sign of heart disease, inhibit adequate oxygen-rich blood volume from reaching the heart, causing a heart attack (myocardial infarction).

How Common Are Heart Attacks?

In the United States, someone has a heart attack every 40 seconds, which is approximately 805,000 people every year. Even more disconcerting is that one in five heart attacks is silent or asymptomatic.

Some early warning signs of silent heart attacks include:

  • Indigestion
  • Flu symptoms
  • A strained muscle in the chest
  • Discomfort in the chest, jaw, upper back, or arms

What Are the Most Common Symptoms of a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks can be deadly if not treated quickly, so it's important to know all the warning signs and get help immediately. Symptoms vary between men and women, but the most shared symptoms include:

  • Pain in the chest
    This pain usually lasts for more than a few minutes, or it may go away and come back. Chest pain can feel like pressure, squeezing, crushing, or fullness and is often located in the center or left side of the chest.
  • Pain in the upper body
    This may include the upper back, neck, jaw, stomach, or in one or both arms.
  • Shortness of breath
    This may occur before, with, or without chest pain and does not lessen with rest.
  • Heartburn
    Heartburn often accompanies other symptoms on this list. Contact your doctor if you suffer from heartburn more than twice a week and symptoms do not subside with over-the-counter medications.
  • Cold sweats or sweating
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Nausea, indigestion, abdominal pain, or vomiting
  • General feelings of malaise (e.g., weakness, discomfort, or fatigue)

Women may also experience flu-like symptoms for days or weeks leading up to a heart attack. If something doesn’t feel right, don’t dismiss it as acid reflux, the flu, or normal aging.

How long do symptoms last?

Symptom length and severity vary from patient to patient. For some, the pain may be continuous, while for others, it may start and stop. Symptoms may also last for a few minutes or several hours or come and go for a few days or weeks.

  • Mild heart attack symptoms may only occur for two to five minutes.
  • Moderate to severe symptoms typically persist for more than five minutes. They may occur intermittently over several hours. Moderate symptoms may begin slowly and cause mild pain or discomfort, or suddenly appear and cause intense pain.

Can Heart Attack Symptoms Come and Go for Weeks?

More than half of all heart attacks have warning signs that can last for days, weeks, or even months. These warning signs often worsen with physical exertion.

If the pain worsens or becomes continuous, seek immediate medical care or call 911.

Note: If you have mild to moderate chest pain constantly for several days, weeks, or months, it is highly unlikely the result of a heart attack.

What Are the Long-Term Effects of Having a Heart Attack?

Not all heart attacks are fatal; however, all cause permanent and irreversible damage to the heart muscle, making the affected area nonfunctional.

Anyone suffering a heart attack is more prone to future heart problems or subsequent attacks.

What Should You Do If You’re Having a Heart Attack?

Here are immediate steps you can take if you or a loved one is having a heart attack:

  • Immediately call 911, your local emergency number, or go to the nearest emergency room.
  • Chew and swallow single, full-sized, uncoated 325 mg aspirin unless you
    • Have an aspirin allergy or intolerance,
    • Are at risk for gastrointestinal bleeding or hemorrhagic stroke,
    • Drink alcohol regularly,
    • Are over the age of 70.
  • Begin CPR to keep the blood flowing if the person is unconscious.
  • Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is immediately available and the person is unconscious.

What Can Increase Your Risk of Heart Attack?

Leading risk factors for heart disease, stroke, and heart attack include:

  • High cholesterol
    Over time, fatty deposits (plaque) from foods can accumulate on vein and artery walls, contributing to the formation of blood clots.
  • Hypertension
    High blood pressure forces the heart to work harder to move blood throughout the body. Over time, this can cause the lower left heart chamber to thicken, increasing your risk for heart attack.
  • Type 2 diabetes
    People with type 2 diabetes are more likely to have high blood sugar, which can damage blood vessels and nerves that control your heart.
  • Smoking
    The chemicals in cigarette smoke can thicken your blood, causing blood clots inside the veins and arteries.
  • Obesity
    Excess weight makes heart muscle work harder, which increases your blood pressure. Obesity also leads to a buildup of fatty deposits in your arteries.
  • Poor nutrition
    Diets high in saturated fats, trans fats, salts, and cholesterol are linked to an increased risk of heart disease and atherosclerosis.
  • Stress
    Chronic stress may contribute to cardiovascular disease, often leading to increased blood pressure, hypertension, and heart disease.
  • Advanced age
    People over age 65 have a higher risk of cardiovascular disease and heart attack because they are more likely to have a buildup of fatty deposits in the walls of their arteries, high cholesterol, and high blood pressure.
  • Ethnicity
    African Americans have a higher risk of heart attack than Caucasians because they may carry a gene that makes them more sensitive to salt, which increases their risk of blood pressure and heart disease.

How Is a Heart Attack Treated?

A heart attack is typically diagnosed in an emergency setting. Doctors may use the following tests to help confirm their diagnosis:

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG)
    This test uses electrical signals to help doctors confirm whether you’ve had or are having a heart attack.
  • Echocardiogram
    This shows how well blood is moving through your heart and heart valves. It can also identify whether an area of your heart has been damaged.
  • Blood tests
    These tests check for certain heart proteins (cardiac monitors) that are known to leak slowly into the blood following a heart attack.
  • Chest X-ray
    This helps your doctor see the condition and size of the heart and lungs.
  • Angiogram
    During this test, dye is pushed through a small catheter to help the arteries show up more clearly on x-rays and scans.
  • Cardiac CT or MRI
    CT and MRI scans are medical imaging tools that help doctors see the extent of heart damage.

Swift treatment is required following a heart attack to fix blood flow and restore oxygen to the heart muscle. Specific treatment depends on the individual, their medical history, and the severity of the heart attack. Common medications include:

  • Aspirin (reduces blood clotting)
  • Clot buster (breaks up blood clots)
  • Blood thinner (administered by injection or IV)
  • Nitroglycerin (widens the blood vessels)
  • Morphine (relieves chest pain)
  • Beta-blocker (slows the heart rate and decreases blood pressure)
  • ACE inhibitor (lowers blood pressure and reduces stress on the heart)
  • Statin (lowers cholesterol levels)

How Can I Best Protect My Heart?

Heart disease can be mostly preventable.

Maintaining a heart-healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent a heart attack—even if you have risk factors like Type 2 diabetes.

Here are seven simple lifestyle changes you can start today:

  • Exercise at least 30 minutes a day to boost circulation
  • Eat foods that are low in saturated fat, added sugars, and sodium
  • Eat more leafy green vegetables, fruits, whole grains, lean meats, and fish
  • Maintain a healthy body mass index (optimal BMI is between 18.5 and 24.9)
  • Manage your blood pressure
  • Quit smoking
  • Limit alcohol intake

Supplements like coenzyme Q10 (CoQ10), fiber, omega-3 fatty acids, magnesium, L-carnitine, green tea, and garlic may also help protect your heart from heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

Talk to your doctor before beginning any new medication, supplement, or exercise schedule.

Treatments depend on the severity of the attack and the individual’s health history, but most people are prescribed blood thinners or ACE inhibitors.

Which Tests Can Help Determine My Heart Health?

If you’d like to know more about your heart health, the physician-approved heart & cardiovascular lab test from Ulta Lab Tests can give you the necessary answers. Our tests are convenient, affordable, and always confidential.

Learn more about your heart health with the tests listed below, and talk to your doctor about how you can best protect your heart from heart problems like angina, heart attack, and stroke:

Quest Diagnostics conducts all tests. Results are typically available within 1-2 business days.
Doctor's orders are never required.

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