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Make a heart attack action plan

A woman sitting on a bench with her hand over her heart.

Learn the warning signs and know how you'll respond.

While it may not be pleasant to think about, planning what to do in the event of a heart attack could be a lifesaving move. And while you can't choose the time or place, there is a lot you can prepare for.

Step 1. Know your risk

A heart attack can happen at any age, but the risk increases for men after age 45 and for women after age 55 or after menopause. In addition to age, other risk factors include:

  • A previous heart attack.
  • A family history of early heart disease.
  • High blood sugar due to diabetes or insulin resistance.
  • An unhealthy diet (for example, a diet high in saturated fat, added sugar and sodium).
  • High blood pressure.
  • High cholesterol.
  • Smoking.
  • Being overweight.
  • Being inactive.

You may have other risk factors too. So it's important to talk with your doctor about your personal heart attack risk.

Step 2. Recognize the warning signs

In the movies, heart attack victims often clutch their chests in pain and keel over. But in reality, most heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort.

It's important to recognize the signs of a heart attack. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), they include:

  • Chest discomfort that lasts more than a few minutes or comes and goes. It might feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, pain or even indigestion.
  • Discomfort in other body parts, such as your back, arms, shoulders, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • A cold sweat.
  • Nausea and vomiting.
  • Light-headedness or dizziness.

If you're at risk for a heart attack, talk with your family, friends and co-workers about these signs too.

Step 3. Plan how you'll take action

If you or someone else experiences any of the symptoms above—or think you may be having a heart attack—call 911 right away.

During a heart attack, a blockage cuts off the flow of blood to your heart. The longer you delay medical attention, the greater the damage to your heart muscle.

It's best not to drive or let someone else drive you to the emergency room. An ambulance is equipped to help you on the way to the hospital, which could save your life.

If you're at risk for a heart attack, keep a list of your medicines with you, and make sure those around you know where to find it. If your doctor prescribed nitroglycerin pills, keep them handy so that you can take one while you wait for the ambulance to arrive. Or you might be told to crush or chew an aspirin.

Step 4. Have an emergency communication plan

Would your kids know who to call if you didn't pick them up? Would your loved ones know how to reach your doctor? How would your workplace stay informed?

It's important to plan and practice how you'll stay in touch in an emergency—and keep everyone safe.

Reviewed 11/1/2023

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