Recognizing a Heart Attack or Angina

If you have risk factors for heart problems, you should always watch for signs of angina or a heart attack. If you have a sudden heart problem, getting treatment right away could save your life. Man grabbing chest in pain.Risk factors for a heart attack include advanced age, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, having a family member who had a heart attack before the age of 50, diabetes, smoking, and stress. There are other risk factors including eating a high-fat diet and getting minimal exercise.

Understanding angina and heart attack

  • Angina is a painful burning, tightness, or pressure in the chest, back, neck, throat, or jaw. It means not enough blood is getting to the heart. This is usually from a blocked artery in the heart. Angina is a sign that you may be having, or are about to have, a heart attack. It needs to be addressed by a healthcare provider right away.

  • A heart attack, also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI, is what happens when blood can't get to part of the heart muscle. That part of the heart muscle is damaged and starts to die. If enough of the heart is affected, it will severely reduce its ability to provide blood to the rest of the body. It may cause death. It is vital to get help as soon as possible for a heart attack.

Stable angina versus unstable angina

Stable angina, also known as chronic angina, has a typical pattern. It occurs predictably with physical exertion or strong emotion. Nitroglycerin, rest, or both, will easily relieve stable angina symptoms. Stable angina symptoms will most likely feel the same each time you have them. It is important to discuss these symptoms with your healthcare provider. They can be a warning sign for a future heart attack.

Unstable angina causes unexpected or unpredictable symptoms, commonly occurring at rest, and is a medical emergency. Angina is also considered unstable if resting and nitroglycerin doesn't relieve symptoms, It's also unstable if symptoms are worsening, occurring more often, or are lasting longer. These symptoms suggest a severe blockage or a spasm of a heart artery. Unstable angina is commonly a sign of an active heart attack. Remember the following tips:

  • Stable angina symptoms should go away with rest or medicine. If they don’t go away, call 911!

  • Stable angina symptoms last for only a few minutes. If they last longer than that, or if they go away and come back, you may be having a heart attack. Call 911!

  • If you have shortness of breath, cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness, call 911!

For new-onset angina, there is only one response: call 911! You should never diagnose angina by yourself. If these symptoms are new, or worse than usual, call 911!

Warning signs of a heart attack

If you have symptoms that you can’t explain, call 911 right away. Do not drive yourself to the emergency room. The following are warning signs of a possible heart attack:

  • Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.

  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Note for women: Like men, women commonly have chest pain or discomfort as a heart attack symptom. But women are somewhat more likely than men to have other common symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, back pain, or jaw pain.

Note for older adults: Older people may also have atypical symptoms of a heart attack. These symptoms include fainting, weakness, or confusion. Ignoring these symptoms can lead to critical illness or death. They should be investigated right away.

If you've had a heart attack: People who have had one heart attack are at risk for having another. Your provider may prescribe medicine such as nitroglycerin to take when chest pain starts. Or you may need medicines to lower your heart rate and blood pressure to prevent angina and another heart attack. Remember to take any medicines your provider has given and do not stop them without speaking with him or her first.


If you have diabetes: silent heart problems

Over time, high blood sugar can damage nerves in your body. This may keep you from feeling pain caused by a heart problem, leading to a “silent” heart problem. If you don’t feel symptoms, you are less able to recognize that you may be having a heart attack and get treatment right away. Talk to your healthcare provider about how to lower your risk for silent heart problems.

Was this helpful?

Yes No

Tell us more.

Check all that apply.

Last question: How confident are you filling out medical forms by yourself?

Not at all A little Somewhat Quite a bit Extremely

Thank You!

© 2000-2017 The StayWell Company, LLC. 780 Township Line Road, Yardley, PA 19067. All rights reserved. This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your healthcare professional's instructions.