What Is a Heart Attack?

Updated:Feb 8,2013
Every 39 seconds, someone dies from heart and blood vessel diseases, America’s No. 1 killer. Since most of those deaths are from coronary heart disease — over 400,000 each year — it’s important to learn all you can about heart attack.

For example, you should know the warning signs of heart attack so you can get help right away, either for yourself or someone close to you.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are some of the signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:
  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
If you or someone you’re with has chest discomfort, especially with one or more of the other signs, don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for help. Call 9-1-1 or the emergency medical services (EMS) in your area (fire department or ambulance). Get to a hospital right away.

What causes a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when the blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked (often by a blood clot). This happens because coronary arteries that supply the heart with blood slowly become thicker and harder from a buildup of fat, cholesterol and other substances, called plaque.

If the plaque breaks open and a blood clot forms that blocks the blood flow, a heart attack occurs. Then the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Damage increases the longer an artery stays blocked.

Once that muscle dies, the result is permanent heart damage.

How can I recover?

Depending on the extent of your heart attack, you may only be in the hospital a few days. But your recovery is just beginning.
  • Start making changes in your life now to reduce your risk of having another heart attack. Eat healthful meals, be more physically active, and don't smoke.
  • Talk with your doctor and nurses about how you can live as normal a life as possible. Ask how soon you can go back to work, drive a car, have sex, and what to do if you have chest discomfort. They can answer your questions about other matters, too.
  • Talk with your healthcare provider about joining a cardiac rehabilitation program in your area.
How can I avoid a heart attack?

Even if you have heart disease, there’s a lot you can do to improve your heart’s health. Work with your healthcare provider to set goals to reduce your risk of heart attack.
  • Don’t smoke, and avoid second-hand smoke.
  • Treat high blood pressure, if you have it.
  • Eat a healthy diet that’s low in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and salt.
  • Get at least 150 minutes (2 1/2 hours) of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
  • Keep your weight in the normal range.
  • See your doctor for regular check-ups.
  • Take your medicines exactly as prescribed.
  • Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
How can I learn more?
  1. Talk to your doctor, nurse or other healthcare professionals. If you have heart disease or have had a stroke, members of your family also may be at higher risk. It’s very important for them to make changes now to lower their risk.
  2. Call 1-800-AHA-USA1 (1-800-242-8721), or visit heart.org to learn more about heart disease.
  3. For information on stroke, call 1-888-4-STROKE (1-888-478-7653) or visit us online at StrokeAssociation.org.

We have many other fact sheets and educational booklets to help you make healthier choices to reduce your risk, manage disease or care for a loved one. Visit heart.org/answersbyheart to learn more.

Knowledge is power, so Learn and Live!

Do you have questions or comments for your doctor or nurse?

Take a few minutes to write your own questions for the next time you see your healthcare provider. For example:

How soon can I return to work after my heart attack?

Is there a cardiac rehabilitation program in my area?

©2012, American Heart Association 


Multi-language Fact Sheet Topics

Heart-related Conditions
What is Angina?
What is an Arrhythmia?
What Is Atrial Fibrillation?
How Can I Lower High Cholesterol?
What Do My Cholesterol Levels Mean?
What Are High Blood Cholesterol and Triglycerides?
What Is High Blood Pressure?
How Can I Reduce High Blood Pressure?
High Blood Pressure and Stroke
What Is Diabetes and How Can I Manage It?
How Can I Live With Heart Failure?
What Is Heart Failure?
What Is a Heart Attack?
How Will I Recover From My Heart Attack?
What Are the Warning Signs of Heart Attack?
What Are Heart Disease and Stroke?
What is Metabolic Syndrome?
What is Peripheral Vascular Disease?

Stroke, Recovery and Caregiving
Hemorrhagic Stroke
Ischemic Stroke
What Are the Warning Signs of Stroke?
Lifestyle Changes to Prevent Stroke
Stroke Diagnosis
Changes Caused by Stroke
Emotional Changes After Stroke
Feeling Tired After a Stroke
Stroke and Rehabilitation
Stroke Family Caregivers
How Should I Care for Myself as a Caregiver?

Treatment, Tests and Procedures
What is Cholesterol-Lowering Medicine?
What is High Blood Pressure Medicine?
What Are Anticoagulants and Antiplatelet Agents?
What Is an Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator?
What Is a Pacemaker?
What Is Coronary Angioplasty?
What is a Stent?
What is Coronary Bypass Surgery?
What is a Coronary Angiogram?
How Can I Recover From Heart Surgery?
What is Carotid Endarterectomy?

Healthy Lifestyle and Risk Reduction
How Can I Manage My Weight?
How Can Physical Activity Become a Way of Life?
Why Should I Be Physically Active?
How Do I Follow a Healthy Diet?
Why Should I Limit Sodium?
How Do I Read "Nutrition Facts" Labels?
How Can I Quit Smoking?
How Can I Manage Stress?
How Can I Make My Lifestyle Healthier?
How Can I Monitor My Cholesterol, Blood Pressure and Weight?