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Warning Signs

Urgency of Heart Attack, Cardiac Arrest and Stroke

Today heart attack and stroke victims can benefit from new medications and treatments unavailable to patients in years past.  For example, clot-busting drugs can stop some heart attacks and strokes in progress, reducing disability and saving lives.  But to be effective, these drugs must be given relatively quickly after heart attack or stroke symptoms first appear. 

Heart attack, cardiac arrest and stroke are life-and-death emergencies – every second counts.  If you see or have any of the listed symptoms, don’t wait longer than a few minutes (no longer than five) before calling for help.  Call 9-1-1 and get to a hospital right away.  Not all these symptoms occur in every heart attack, cardiac arrest or stroke.  Sometimes the symptoms go away and return.

Heart Attack Warning Signs

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense – the “movie heart attack” – and no one doubts what’s happening. But most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort.  Often people affected aren’t sure what’s wrong and wait too long before getting help.  Here are signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:

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.  May occur with or without chest discomfort.

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

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest strikes immediately and without warning.  Here are the signs: 

  • Sudden loss of responsiveness. No response to gentle shaking.
  • No normal breathing. The victim does not take a normal breath when you check for several seconds. 
  • No signs of circulation. No movement or coughing.

If cardiac arrest occurs, call 9-1-1 and begin Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation (CPR) immediately. If an automated external defibrillator (AED) is available and someone trained to use it is nearby, involve him or her.


The American Stroke Association and National Stroke Association identify these warning signs of stroke: 

  • Sudden numbness or weakness of face, arm or leg, especially on one side of the body
  • Sudden confusion, trouble speaking or understanding
  • Sudden trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination
  • Sudden severe headache with no known cause

Even if these symptoms do not cause pain, call 9-1-1 and go to the hospital immediately.  It is very important to check the time of when the first stroke symptom appeared; if given a clot–busting drug within three hours of the start of symptoms, long-term disability can be reduced for the most common type of stroke.

Call 9-1-1 if you see or have any of these symptoms.  Treatment can be more effective if given quickly.  Every minute counts!

Preventing Heart Disease

There are many things you can do to prevent heart disease and stroke. You probably already know what they are:  not smoking, eating a heart healthy diet, getting plenty of regular physical activity, keeping your weight under control, getting regular medical checkups, managing stress in your life, and controlling your blood pressure and cholesterol.

Talk to your health care provider about your risks for heart disease, and about appropriate screening tests.  Ask what steps you can take to improve your heart health.