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Heart attack: First aid

Someone having a heart attack may experience any or all of the following:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness or squeezing pain in the center of the chest
  • Discomfort or pain spreading beyond the chest to the shoulders, back, neck, jaw, teeth, or one or both arms, or occasionally upper abdomen
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting
  • Sweating
  • Nausea

A heart attack generally causes chest pain for more than 15 minutes, but it can also have no symptoms at all. It's important to be aware that symptoms other than chest pain may occur, such as indigestion or persistent neck or jaw pain.

Many people who experience a heart attack have warning signs hours, days or weeks in advance.

What to do if you or someone else may be having a heart attack

  • Call 911 or your local emergency number. Don't ignore or attempt to tough out the symptoms of a heart attack. If you don't have access to emergency medical services, have a neighbor or a friend drive you to the nearest hospital.

    Drive yourself only as a last resort, and realize that it places you and others at risk when you drive under these circumstances.

  • Chew and swallow an aspirin, unless you are allergic to aspirin or have been told by your doctor never to take aspirin.
  • Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed. If you think you're having a heart attack and your doctor has previously prescribed nitroglycerin for you, take it as directed. Don't take anyone else's nitroglycerin, because that could put you in more danger.
  • Begin CPR if the person is unconscious. If you're with a person who is unconscious, tell the 911 dispatcher or another emergency medical specialist. You may be advised to begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

    If you haven't received CPR training, doctors recommend performing only chest compressions (about 100 to 120 compressions a minute). The dispatcher can instruct you in the proper procedures until help arrives.

  • If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is immediately available and the person is unconscious, follow the device instructions for using it.

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