Illustration of anatomical heart that's glowing red to represent a heart attack

How to survive a heart attack: here's what you need to know

Written on March 7, 2023 by Sendra Yang, PharmD, MBA. 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

What is a heart attack?

More than 800,000 people in the United States have a heart attack every year [1]. The staggering statistic shows how common heart attacks are in the United States. A heart attack is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate attention and treatment [2]. Delaying prompt medical intervention may lead to death.

A heart attack follows when part of the heart is blocked, restricting blood flow. The longer the blood flow is restricted in the heart, the more the heart muscle gets damaged because it is starved of oxygen. When heart muscles are damaged, it is irreversible [3]. The damaged tissue becomes scarred and no longer contracts like healthy heart muscles. Over time, a damaged heart muscle will eventually fail. Heart attacks are mainly associated with coronary heart disease because cholesterol plaque buildup in the heart arteries is the usual cause of coronary heart disease, which develops over time [4].

Recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack

Don’t confuse a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Knowing the difference can save your life. Both are medical emergencies that require immediate medical intervention for survival. A cardiac arrest is not caused by a blockage of blood flow in the heart but by the sudden loss of heart activity [2]. Cardiac arrest often occurs without warning; a person will become unconscious, unresponsive, and have no pulse or breath. Sometimes the onset of cardiac arrest will present signs and symptoms such as chest discomfort, weakness, pounding heart, or shortness of breath [2]. Without lifesaving intervention, a person will die from cardiac arrest.

According to the National Institutes of Health, the most common signs and symptoms of a heart attack are chest pains, feeling light-headed and weak, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, and shortness of breath [2,5]. Other signs may include unusual tiredness, nausea, or vomiting. Knowing to spot the signs and symptoms of a heart attack can help you undertake life-saving measures.

Know what to do in the event you are having a heart attack

If you think you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, it is crucial to seek immediate medical attention by calling for emergency help by dialing 911. Research shows that delaying hospitalization can significantly increase mortality risk [6]. While waiting for emergency medical services to arrive, it is recommended to chew on an aspirin [7]. Although aspirin cannot stop a heart attack, it can help inhibit platelet development and prevent blood clots, which are often responsible for causing blockages during a heart attack. Additionally, if your healthcare provider has prescribed nitroglycerin, it should be taken as directed while awaiting emergency personnel. Nitroglycerin will increase blood flow to your heart [8].

If you or someone you know has a history of heart attacks, keeping a heart attack survival kit is advisable. Heart attack survival kits may include: a list of warning signs of a heart attack, strong recommendations to call 911 and take an aspirin for chest pain, one 325 mg uncoated adult aspirin, CPR instructions, and information about prescribed heart medications and allergies [9].

Know your risk factors and how they contribute to heart diseases

Understanding the risk factors associated with heart attacks can play a crucial role in minimizing the possibility of a heart attack. Smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, and diabetes are the top five contributors to heart attacks [10]. Incorporating healthy preventive lifestyle changes and visiting your healthcare providers regularly can help reduce these risk factors and improve overall health. Reducing these common risk factors will decrease the chances of heart attack mortality[11]. Age is also a significant factor in heart attack occurrences, with a higher risk for those of advanced age [10].

Consulting with a healthcare professional for a cardiovascular health assessment is recommended to evaluate your risk levels. A comprehensive evaluation will include a physical and biomarker workup to determine potential risk levels and suggest preventive measures. Individuals with a family history of heart attacks and cardiovascular diseases are at an increased risk of experiencing a heart attack, further highlighting the importance of preventive lifestyle changes and regular medical evaluations [10].

Key points

  • A heart attack is a life-threatening medical emergency that requires immediate medical attention.
  • Recognize the signs and symptoms and understand the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest.
  • Knowing what to do during a heart attack is crucial to surviving.
  • Be aware of the risk factors associated with heart attacks and adopt healthy lifestyle changes to reduce the risk.
  • Regular medical evaluations and talking with your healthcare provider can help individuals determine their risk levels and take preventive measures.
  • By taking proactive steps to reduce the risk of heart attacks, individuals can improve their overall health and potentially avoid the devastating consequences of a heart attack.

Is heart disease preventable?

How long do heart attacks last?

Can you have a heart attack and not know it?


  1. Heart disease facts. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published October 14, 2022. Accessed March 1, 2023.
  2. What is a heart attack? National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed February 28, 2023.
  3. Richardson WJ, Clarke SA, Quinn TA, Holmes JW. Physiological implications of myocardial scar structure. Compr Physiol. 2015;5(4):1877-1909. Published 2015 Sep 20. doi:10.1002/cphy.c140067. URL.
  4. Shahjehan RD, Bhutta BS. Coronary artery disease. Updated 2022 Nov 7. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2022. URL.
  5. Heart Attack Symptoms. National Heart Lung and Blood Institute. URL. Accessed February 28, 2023.
  6. Bugiardini R, Ricci B, Cenko E, et al. Delayed care and mortality among women and men With myocardial infarction. J Am Heart Assoc. 2017;6(8):e005968. Published 2017 Aug 21. doi:10.1161/JAHA.117.005968. URL.
  7. Lu L, Liu M, Sun R, Zheng Y, Zhang P. Myocardial infarction: symptoms and treatments. Cell Biochem Biophys. 2015;72(3):865-867. doi:10.1007/s12013-015-0553-4. URL.
  8. Ferreira JC, Mochly-Rosen D. Nitroglycerin use in myocardial infarction patients. Circ J. 2012;76(1):15-21. doi:10.1253/circj.cj-11-1133. URL.
  9. Meischke H, Eisenberg M, Schaeffer S, Henwood DK. The “Heart Attack Survival Kit” project: an intervention designed to increase seniors’ intentions to respond appropriately to symptoms of acute myocardial infarction. Health Educ Res. 2000 Jun;15(3):317-26. doi: 10.1093/her/15.3.317. URL.
  10. Know your risk for heart disease. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published December 9, 2019. Accessed February 28, 2023.
  11. Lower your risk for the number 1 killer of women. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Published February 3, 2023. Accessed February 28, 2023.
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