What is a Heart Attack?

What is a Heart Attack?

If you’re wondering what a heart attack is, you’re not alone.

A heart attack can be a frightening experience, and it’s important to know what to do if you think you might be having one.

Heart attacks occur when the blood flow going to the heart is blocked.

When this happens, the heart muscle can’t get the oxygen it needs and starts to die.

This can cause serious problems, including cardiac arrest.

Symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person, but common signs include chest pain, shortness of breath, and sweating.

If you experience any of these symptoms, seek medical help immediately.

Treatment for a heart attack depends on how severe it is, but typically includes medication and lifestyle changes.

That said:

Let’s take full details into what a Heart Attack actually is.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack also called a myocardial infarction, occurs when blood stops flowing to part of the heart because of a blocked artery.

The lack of oxygen-rich blood can damage or destroy muscle tissue.

A heart attack is a medical emergency that requires prompt treatment to restore blood flow to the heart.

The sooner a person receives treatment for a heart attack, the better their chances of survival.

According to The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), “If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, even if you’re not sure, call 911 right away”.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

Some common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain is the most common sign, and it is typically described as uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Pain may spread from the chest to the shoulders, arms, neck, jaw, and back.
  • Chest pain typically worsens with exertion and may be accompanied by shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness.

Other common signs include:

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, especially during exertion.
  • Feeling sick to your stomach or vomiting.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.

Of course, these are not the only signs of a heart attack.

But if you have one or more of these symptoms, call 911 immediately because a heart attack can be a deadly event.

Learn more: 7 Heart Attack Warning Signs Women Often Miss

What does a heart attack feel like?

Most people who have had a heart attack describe it as severe pressure, tightness, or squeezing in the center of their chest.

Others describe it as an elephant sitting on their chest.

Some have also described chest pain as a “sickening” sensation or a feeling of impending doom.

The pain may radiate to the shoulders, down the arms, into the jaw, or up into the neck and sometimes even the back.

Symptoms can appear suddenly or gradually over several minutes, then disappear.

How long does a heart attack last?

A heart attack symptoms can last for a few minutes or several hours.

However, if the pain doesn’t go away after a few minutes, it is best to call 911 immediately.

How to stop a heart attack?

Unfortunately, It is not possible to stop a heart attack when it is in progress.

What you should do is to call 911 and get to the hospital as soon as possible.

If you’re unable to call 911, chew an adult aspirin (325mg) with a cup of water.

Aspirin helps limit the body’s release of substances that trigger blood clotting.

When someone else is having a heart attack

If you’re with another person who’s having a heart attack, call 911 immediately.

Then, give them aspirin while you wait for help to arrive.

But If the person has collapsed from a heart attack, have someone call 911 immediately.

Start CPR if you don’t see normal breathing or breathing that lasts less than 10 seconds.

Begin CPR by giving 2 rescue breaths and then 30 chest compressions.

Then, repeat the process of giving 2 rescue breaths and 30 chest compressions.

Continue CPR until the patient starts to breathe on their own or help arrives.

When should you go to the emergency room?

If someone is experiencing signs of a heart attack, they should see a doctor immediately.

Emergency room (ER) visits for heart attacks could save their life.

It is also important to recognize that many people, especially women and the elderly, may not have chest pain during a heart attack.

Even if you don’t think it is a heart attack, you should still seek emergency medical attention if you are having any of the symptoms listed above.

Some people may experience a heart attack without symptoms.

Causes of heart attacks

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked by a build-up of plaque in coronary arteries.

The arteries are blood vessels that supply oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle.

Plaque is a fatty deposit made up of cholesterol, other fats, calcium, and scar tissue that can build up in these arteries.

Over time, the build-up causes the artery to narrow (atherosclerosis) or become completely blocked, limiting the blood supply to the heart.

This condition is known as coronary artery disease.

It is a leading cause of heart attacks.

But wait – there’s more:

The majority of heart attacks are caused by coronary artery disease, but other factors can contribute to plaque build-up in the arteries.

These factors include:

  • High blood pressure.
  • Diabetes.
  • Lack of exercise.
  • Smoking.
  • Aging.
  • Family history of heart disease or stroke.
  • Some medications, such as steroids and certain antidepressants.
  • Aortic (aorta) aneurysm.

Risk factors for heart attacks

The biggest risk factor is having close blood relatives with heart disease.

You are also at an increased risk if you have diabetes, high blood pressure, hypertension, or cholesterol.

Other risk factors include:

  • Obesity
  • Smoking
  • Unhealthy diet
  • Age
  • Stress
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Heavy alcohol use or drug abuse.

If you are at high risk, your doctor may recommend medications to help control your blood pressure, cholesterol level, or blood sugar level.


When you go to the hospital, your doctor will first give you a physical exam.

They may ask questions about your family medical history and symptoms.

You will also have several tests to help rule out other conditions that could be causing your symptoms.

This includes an electrocardiogram (ECG) which measures your heart activity.

Your doctor may also do a blood test to check for certain substances that indicate you have a heart attack.

Treatment for heart attacks

The primary treatment is to unblock the arteries with drugs or surgery.

During a heart attack, you may receive:


This is a medication that helps open the arteries by relaxing the blood vessel walls.

This is given through a small, disc-shaped device called a transdermal patch that you place on your skin or through an intravenous (IV) line.

Antiplatelet drugs

Antiplatelet drugs help prevent blood clots from forming on the artery walls.

For example, aspirin is an antiplatelet drug.

It has been shown to significantly decrease the risk of heart attacks in people who have had a previous heart attack.


Oxygen is given directly through a mask placed over your mouth and nose.

Oxygen has been shown to decrease heart damage when given immediately after a heart attack.


This is a medication that helps reduce inflammation and prevent further tissue damage in blood vessels.

Reperfusion therapy

During this procedure, a catheter with a balloon is inserted into the blocked artery and then inflated.

This “reopens” the artery.

You may also receive a coronary stent, a tube-like device that can be inserted into the artery through a tiny incision in your groin.

A stent helps keep an artery open after it has been opened with angioplasty.

Balloon angioplasty is performed by inserting a small, tube-like device called a catheter into an artery in your groin.

The catheter is threaded to your heart.

A small balloon attached to the end of the tube is inflated to open up the artery.


If other treatments are not successful, you may need surgery to open up the blood vessel.

This is called coronary artery bypass surgery.

During the surgery, a blood vessel from another part of your body, such as your leg, is attached to the coronary artery to bypass the blocked one.

The surgery takes about three to six hours and requires a heart-lung machine to keep you alive while the blood flow is stopped.


The best way to prevent a heart attack is to avoid the risk factors that can lead to coronary artery diseases, such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, and diabetes.

Lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking and exercising regularly, can help reduce your risk.

Also, eating a healthy diet, maintaining a healthy weight, and limiting your alcohol use will help reduce your risk.

Heart attacks can be deadly, but the good news is you can also prevent them.

The Takeaway

Heart attacks are caused by reduced blood flow to the heart.

The most common symptoms are chest pain or discomfort that can radiate around your arm or into your jaw, shortness of breath, unusual heartbeats that may feel like an irregular heartbeat, and nausea or vomiting.

As soon as you notice the symptoms, get help right away by calling 9-1-1 or going to your nearest emergency department.

If you have any of the risk factors for coronary artery disease, make lifestyle changes and see your doctor regularly to manage your risk.