The first few hours after a heart attack are critical. Learn about heart attack warning signs and what to do if symptoms strike when you’re alone.
If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, the situation can be frightening, especially if you’re alone when experiencing symptoms.
“Those having a heart attack without cardiac arrest — which is when the heart suddenly stops, rendering someone unconscious — are usually conscious and will typically experience a number of symptoms, some of which may serve as warning signs leading up to a more serious attack or even cardiac arrest,” said Shawn A. Gregory, M.D., a cardiologist with the Vanderbilt Heart and Vascular Institute. Here are the steps you need to take to get emergency medical attention and prevent a possible attack from progressing into something worse. These tips will help you understand that surviving a heart attack is possible.
What symptoms might indicate a heart attack?
Chest discomfort is the most common symptom of a heart attack. These may also involve the neck, jaw, arms, upper abdomen or back. “This is typically a pressure or constricting sensation,” Gregory explained, “but many patients simply describe it as a discomfort.”
You may be unable to pinpoint the location of the sensation, and it may spread. Shortness of breath is also common, and all symptoms tend to worsen over time and with activity.
Other symptoms, though less common, may include nausea, lightheadedness, sweating, pale or clammy skin, and other forms of chest discomfort like a sharp pain or burning sensation.
When should a person take action?
When surviving a heart attack alone, follow your instincts. “If symptoms frighten you, get them evaluated quickly,” Gregory said. “Many of my patients who have survived heart attacks tell me that they just ‘knew’ that something very bad was happening at the time and that they needed help, or even that they were having a heart attack.”
What emergency steps should be taken to survive a heart attack alone?
If you think you’re experiencing a heart attack, the most important thing to do is to get emergency medical help. “Anything that interferes with getting assistance should be avoided,” Gregory said. “This assistance should be professional and not, for example, asking a friend or loved one to drive you to the hospital. The ambulance service can provide immediate therapy and begin the process of making the diagnosis.” If you live alone and are at an increased risk of having a heart attack or experiencing other medical emergencies, Gregory recommends wearing a medical alert device.
Stay calm and rest
Exertion can worsen a heart attack, so rest and try to relax, even though it’s a scary situation. “Remind yourself that you are playing it on the safe side and getting help as soon as possible,” Gregory said. “You are making the smart move.”
As long as finding aspirin doesn’t delay calling for help or require much activity, take 300 mg. “This roughly correlates with four baby aspirins (81 mg each) or one regular aspirin (325 mg) in the United States,” Gregory said. Chew the tablets to get them into the bloodstream fast.
Prepare for first responders
As long as it doesn’t require exertion, make sure to keep your doors unlocked and pets in a closed room. Additionally, locate your list of medications and allergies. “I recommend my patients keep these lists in their wallets or purses,” Gregory said.
Other steps to take during a heart attack
Taking nitroglycerin may lessen the symptoms of a heart attack and may improve outcomes. “If you have been prescribed nitroglycerin for use as needed, I would advise taking it as directed during a potential heart attack,” Gregory said. “However, I would strongly advise against taking someone else’s nitroglycerin or other medications unless instructed to do so by a health-care provider.”
Lastly, Gregory advises against “cough CPR.” Inaccurate social media posts have made the claim that forced coughing intervals can induce cardiopulmonary resuscitation. “A heart-attack patient may actually worsen their condition by trying cough CPR. This would likely increase stress on the heart,” he said. “For this and several other reasons, health-care providers don’t perform standard CPR on conscious patients either. Therefore, cough CPR should be avoided unless you are instructed to do so by a health-care professional.”