Illustration of anatomical heart glowing red to symbolize a heart attack

How long do heart attacks last?

Written on February 27, 2023 by Theresa Vuskovich, DMD. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.

Table of contents

A heart attack, also known as a myocardial infarction (MI), occurs when your heart doesn't get enough oxygen [1]. A heart attack is a unique experience for each victim [2]. So, how long do heart attacks last? Because of various factors, heart attacks vary in duration. In this article, learn why heart attacks occur, how long they last, and what you can do to prevent one.

Every 40 seconds, a heart attack occurs

Every year, about 1.0 million people in the United States suffer an MI [3]. In the United States, a heart attack occurs every 40 seconds [1]. The most common cause of death in the United States is heart disease [1].

Coronary artery disease (CAD) is an umbrella term for various heart conditions and a common cause of heart attacks [4]. When you have CAD, your heart's arteries become blocked by plaque, a waxy substance that accumulates on the inner artery walls due to high levels of cholesterol in the blood [4,5]. Atherosclerosis refers to the buildup of plaque in the arteries over time [4,5].

Heart attacks irreversibly damage the heart muscle. During a heart attack, blood carrying oxygen cannot reach the heart due to a blocked artery [6,7]. As a result, heart cells (cardiomyocytes) begin to die, causing the heart to stop working correctly [8].

Heart attacks fall into two categories

There are two types of heart attacks [6,7,9]:

  1. ST-elevation MI (STEMI): A STEMI occurs when an artery to the heart is completely blocked, causing faster cardiomyocyte death
  2. Non-ST-elevation MI (NSTEMI): An NSTEMI occurs when oxygen cannot reach the heart due to a partially blocked artery

A person's heart attack type is determined by a physical exam and diagnostic tests, including an electrocardiogram (ECG or EKG) and a troponin blood test [9]. The EKG measures your heart's electrical activity and generates a wave to indicate the health of your heart [9]. When a part of this wave is elevated, called the S-T segment, a heart artery is completely blocked, and a heart attack is occurring [9].

Troponin is a protein present in your heart cells [9]. As heart cells die from a lack of oxygen during a heart attack, they leak troponin into the blood [9]. Elevated troponin levels indicate a heart attack is occurring [7-9].

How long a heart attack lasts depends on the heart attack type, prior heart health, and awareness. Consequently, heart attacks can last for various durations, depending on the individual. Your body may warn you days before a heart attack occurs.

Heart attack symptoms can last for days

Heart attack warning signs can start weeks to days before the attack, with approximately two-thirds of victims experiencing them [3]. The most common symptoms of a heart attack are [3]:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Arm, shoulder, and/or jaw pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Excessive sweating

While most heart attack victims experience symptoms, 20% of heart attacks are silent, meaning the person does not experience any symptoms [3]. Silent heart attacks are more common in patients with diabetes [3]. STEMI and NSTEMI heart attacks have the same symptoms [3].

Men and women experience heart attacks differently

Women typically report more symptoms, including digestive issues and pain, than men [2,3,7,10]. Men are more likely to have a heart attack [10]. However, women are more likely to receive a misdiagnosis and often have a more difficult time recovering from a heart attack [11].

A heart attack is not a sudden cardiac arrest

A heart attack is due to a blockage in an artery, while a sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is due to a problem with the electrical firing in the heart [12]. During an SCA, the victim loses all cardiac function, collapses, and goes unconscious [12]. Survival is possible, but immediate medical attention is necessary.

If you witness someone collapse and stop breathing, call 9-1-1 and begin CPR immediately. If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available, start the machine and follow its instructions.

How to prevent heart attacks

By living a healthy lifestyle, you can prevent heart attacks. The following are some ways to prevent heart disease and heart attacks [3,13].

1. Know your risk factors

Heart attack risk factors include [3]:

  • High level of low-density lipoprotein (LDL) in the blood
  • Low level of HDL cholesterol in the blood
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Smoking
  • Obesity
  • Lack of physical activity
  • High blood pressure
  • High level of C-reactive protein (CRP) in the blood

2. Maintain a healthy lifestyle

Here are a few tips to keep your lifestyle healthy:

  • Eat a diet low in saturated fats, trans fats, and cholesterol
  • Consume less salt
  • Limit consumption of sugar
  • Drink in moderation (two drinks a day for men and one drink a day for women)
  • Exercise by briskly walking or bicycling for 2 hours and 30 minutes weekly

3. Manage your health in a proactive way

Here are a few ways to proactively manage your heart health:

  • Maintain a regular health screening schedule
  • Check your cholesterol and CRP levels
  • Ask your family members about their health history. Genetics can play a role in heart disease [3]
  • Ensure you take your medications as prescribed
  • Work with your healthcare providers to help you prevent or treat heart disease

Everlywell's Heart Health Test measures cholesterol and hs-CRP levels and may help determine heart disease risk when results are shared with a healthcare provider. This test and other tests (including HbA1c and the Cholesterol and Lipids Test) are also available to you when you join the Everlywell+ at-home heart health membership.

You can also talk to a healthcare provider about your heart health through virtual care visits accessed via Everlywell.

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  1. Heart disease facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published December 6, 2022. Accessed February 23, 2023.
  2. Lichtman JH, Leifheit EC, Safdar B, et al. Sex differences in the presentation and perception of symptoms among young patients with myocardial infarction: Evidence from the VIRGO study (Variation in Recovery: Role of Gender on Outcomes of young AMI patients): Evidence from the VIRGO study (Variation in Recovery: Role of Gender on Outcomes of young AMI patients). Circulation. 2018;137(8):781-790. doi:10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.117.031650. URL
  3. Acute Myocardial Infarction (MI). Merck Manual Professional Version. URL. Accessed Feb. 24, 2023.
  4. Coronary artery disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published December 6, 2022. Accessed February 24, 2023.
  5. Overview of coronary artery disease. Merck Manual Professional Version. URL. Accessed Feb. 24, 2023.
  6. What is a heart attack? URL. Accessed February 24, 2023.
  7. Mechanic OJ, Gavin M, Grossman SA. Acute Myocardial Infarction. StatPearls Publishing; 2022. URL
  8. Orogo AM, Gustafsson ÅB. Cell death in the myocardium: my heart won't go on. IUBMB Life. 2013;65(8):651-656. doi:10.1002/iub.1180. URL
  9. STEMI heart attack. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed February 24, 2023.
  10. Nyström, A., Strömberg, S., Jansson, K., Faresjö, Å.O., Faresjö, T., 2022. Cardiovascular risks before myocardial infarction differences between men and women. BMC Cardiovascular Disorders 22.. URL
  11. Writing Committee Members, Gulati M, Levy PD, et al. 2021 AHA/ACC/ASE/CHEST/SAEM/SCCT/SCMR guideline for the evaluation and diagnosis of Chest Pain: A report of the American college of cardiology/American heart association joint committee on clinical practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2021;78(22):e187-e285. doi:10.1016/j.jacc.2021.07.053. URL
  12. Sudden cardiac arrest. Mayo Clinic. URL. Published January 19, 2023. Accessed February 25, 2023.
  13. Prevent heart disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published April 21, 2020. Accessed February 25, 2023.
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