Chest pain is one of many possible symptoms of a heart attack. Knowing the other symptoms and what to do if they develop may save your life or the life of a loved one.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart muscle is blocked or significantly reduced. The event can cause permanent damage to heart tissue. Responding quickly to heart attack symptoms is essential to minimize complications and long-term heart problems.

The more aware you are of some of the common and even some of the less common symptoms of a heart attack, the better equipped you’ll be to get treatment for yourself or someone else who may be experiencing a serious cardiac episode.

Keep reading to learn about the symptoms of a heart attack.

What to do if you or someone you know is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack

If you suspect you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 911 or have someone near you call 911. Don’t try to drive yourself to the emergency room. If your symptoms worsen, you could put yourself or other motorists at risk.

Learn about steps to follow if you or someone you know appears to be having a cardiac or heart-related episode.

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The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report that chest pain or discomfort is present with most heart attacks, but several other symptoms may be present.

It’s worth noting that heart attack symptoms tend to be nontypical or different in certain populations including females, older adults, and those with diabetes mellitus. If you belong to one of these groups, have a discussion with your doctor about symptoms that may be unique to you.

Common signs and symptoms

While chest pain or discomfort occurs frequently, the nature of that discomfort varies. It may be experienced as pressure or a squeezing sensation or as a sharp pain, often on the left side of the chest. Heart attack chest pain may get progressively worse, or it may come and go.

Other common indications of a heart attack include:

  • cold sweat
  • lightheadedness, weakness, or fainting
  • shortness of breath, sometimes preceding chest pain or occurring along with chest pain
  • upper body pain, including pain that radiates up the neck to the jaw and pain in the back, shoulders, and arms

Though left arm pain is more commonly associated with heart attack symptoms, you can have pain in your right arm only or in both arms. Likewise, you may have pain in one or both shoulders during a heart attack.

Some people also report that they have a vague sense of impending doom before other heart attack symptoms set in or while symptoms are developing.

In women

Women with heart disease may experience typical heart attack symptoms, such as chest pain, though in many cases their symptoms are less obvious. Women often have more subtle symptoms that may not always suggest a heart attack, according to the American Heart Association.

Some of these symptoms include:

  • nausea and vomiting
  • palpitations
  • shortness of breath
  • upper back or jaw pain

In older adults

A sudden jolt of chest pain may be an unmistakable sign that a heart attack is underway. But for many older adults, other symptoms may be more confusing.

For example, older adults who become winded while climbing stairs or doing yard work may treat a symptom such as shortness of breath as an age-related complaint rather than a heart attack symptom. If you’re resting and start to have trouble catching your breath, call 911.

In people with diabetes

People with diabetes are more likely to develop heart disease and at a younger age than those without diabetes. That’s because high blood glucose from diabetes can damage the blood vessels and nerves that control your heart.

If you have diabetes that has affected some of the nerves in your chest, the onset of seemingly minor chest pain may be masking a more serious problem, such as a heart attack.

Atypical symptoms may include:

  • breaking out in a cold sweat for no reason
  • feeling particularly tired for no reason
  • stomach upset
  • shortness of breath even when you haven’t been active

If you’re already being treated for heart disease

If you have been diagnosed with and are being treated for heart disease, your doctor can let you know about heart attack symptoms to be aware of so that you’ll be prepared if one occurs.

The symptoms you experience during a heart attack may be more intense than the ones that initially led to your heart disease diagnosis. That includes conditions such as angina or shortness of breath with exertion.

Angina is chest pain that occurs when the heart muscle isn’t getting a sufficient and steady supply of blood. There are two types of angina:

  • Stable angina: This type is predictable and usually occurs after physical exertion, when the heart muscle is trying to keep up with the body’s demand for robust circulation.
  • Unstable angina: This type suggests a more serious heart problem, as it can develop at any time, even when you’re resting.

Telling the difference between angina and a heart attack isn’t always easy. If you have a bout of chest pain after exercise or other exertion and the pain subsides quickly when you rest, you probably have stable angina. If, however, the pain continues, gets worse, or comes and goes, it could be a heart attack.

An episode of angina usually lasts anywhere from a few minutes to half an hour, while heart attack symptoms often last for more than 30 minutes, according to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada. If you’re unsure, have someone drive you to an emergency room.

Heartburn, also known as acid reflux or acid indigestion, can present as a mild or sometimes very uncomfortable sensation in the center of your chest. If the chest discomfort eases when you change positions — sitting up instead of lying flat — or when you take antacids, the chances are good that it’s heartburn.

Also, if you have a history of heartburn after consuming certain foods or beverages, look for those clues if chest discomfort develops.

Heartburn is also accompanied often by a sour taste in your mouth or mild regurgitation (stomach contents backing up into your throat or mouth). It usually occurs without typical heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, lightheadedness, or pain elsewhere in the body.

Recognizing and responding to heart attack symptoms can save a life or at the very least, reduce the damage a heart attack can cause.

The main symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • jaw, neck, or back discomfort
  • weakness or lightheadedness
  • chest discomfort
  • arm or shoulder discomfort
  • shortness of breath

Take the time to learn those and other symptoms, especially if you or someone close to you is at a high risk of a heart attack. This includes older adults, people with a history of cardiovascular disease, and those with high blood pressure, high cholesterol, or diabetes.

The sooner you react to signs of a heart attack and call 911, the better the chances of successful treatment and recovery.