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What should I do if I have the symptoms of a heart attack?

Getting prompt treatment for a heart attack can be lifesaving. If you experience one or more symptoms of a heart attack, act quickly and take the following steps:

  • Sit down or lie down.
  • If symptoms persist for 2 minutes, call your local emergency telephone number and say you may be having a heart attack. Leave the phone off the hook so that medical personnel can locate your address if you should become unconscious.
  • If you have nitroglycerin tablets, take up to three pills, one at a time every 5 minutes.
  • Ambulances are well equipped to provide emergency care for people who are having heart attacks. It is usually better to have medical personnel come to you than for you to start off for the hospital.
  • If you can get to the hospital faster by car than by ambulance, have someone drive you. Do not drive yourself--it could be dangerous.
  • Do not delay getting medical treatment, even if you are not sure you are having a heart attack. A delay can cause permanent damage to your heart muscle or even death. Let the doctor determine whether or not you are having a heart attack.
  • If your breathing or pulse stops, any person who is trained in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should immediately begin the procedure. Call your local emergency telephone number first.
  • When you arrive at the emergency room, you or the person who brought you should announce clearly that you may be having a heart attack. Make sure you are seen at once.

What is nitroglycerin?

Nitroglycerin is a drug that reduces the pain of angina by widening blood vessels to allow more blood to reach the heart muscle. You place nitroglycerin tablets under your tongue whenever you feel the pain of angina or anticipate it coming on. People who have angina should have nitroglycerin with them at all times and should take it immediately if they feel pain in their chest.

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If I think I might be having a heart attack, but I'm not sure, should I call my local emergency telephone number?

A heart attack does the most damage in the first 2 hours. The longer you delay seeking treatment, the more damage your heart is likely to sustain. Responding promptly to signs of a heart attack can dramatically increase your chances of recovery. If your symptoms last more than 2 minutes, call your local emergency telephone number . Here are some common reasons why people delay calling for help, and the facts in each situation:

Reason for delay: You think that only men have heart attacks.
Reality: Heart disease is the most common cause of death in women as well as men. If you have symptoms, call for help.

Reason for delay: You are not sure it is a heart attack.
Reality: Call anyway--heart attack symptoms can be vague.

Reason for delay: It feels like heartburn.
Reality: If you have a history of heart disease, angina, or high blood pressure, the heartburn you feel may actually be a heart attack. Call for help immediately.

Reason for delay: You'd feel embarrassed if it turned out you didn't need medical help after all.
Reality: Never feel embarrassed about calling for help. A little embarrassment might save your life.

Reason for delay: You're hoping that it is not a heart attack.
Reality: Wishful thinking can be deadly. You can't wish a heart attack away, and getting treatment quickly can save your life. Most people who survive a heart attack can return to their normal life, including work, within 3 months.

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What medical treatment can I expect if I have to go to the hospital for a heart attack?

Much can be done to help you recover from a heart attack, but you must take the first and most important step--getting medical help immediately. At the hospital, the emergency room staff will determine if you have had a heart attack by doing a test called an electrocardiogram (ECG) and by taking a blood sample to test for chemicals that are secreted by damaged heart muscle. You may be given drugs immediately to help dissolve a clot that may be causing the blockage. If your heartbeat is abnormal, the doctor may need to restore a normal rhythm with a defibrillator, which delivers an electric current to your heart. If your heart has stopped, doctors will compress your chest rhythmically to try to maintain normal pumping action until your heartbeat has been reestablished. Later, you may be given blood-thinning medications to help prevent a clot from forming again or to prevent new clots from forming. Your care will continue in the coronary care unit until you are out of danger.

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Posted on 12/1997