Heart Attack – Warning Signs and Tips on Prevention
If you are having any symptoms or have any questions, please call 811 to speak with a registered nurse 24 hours a day.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack (also called myocardial infarction) is when part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies because it isn’t receiving enough oxygen. Normally, oxygen is carried to the heart by blood flowing through the arteries that feed the heart muscle (called coronary arteries). Most heart attacks are caused by a blockage in these arteries. Usually the blockage is caused by atherosclerosis, which is the buildup of fatty deposits (called plaque) inside the artery, and hardening of the artery walls. The buildup is like the gunk that builds up in a drainpipe and slows the flow of water.
Heart attacks are also often caused by a blood clot that forms in a coronary artery, blocking blood flow. Clots are especially likely to form where plaques become cracked or damaged in any way.
How do I know if I’m having a heart attack?
The pain of a heart attack can feel like bad heartburn. You may also be having a heart attack if you:
- Feel a pressure or crushing pain in your chest, sometimes with sweating, dizziness, nausea or vomiting. The pain often lasts longer than a few minutes or may come and go.
- Feel pain that extends from your chest into the neck, jaw, arm(s), upper stomach or back
- Feel tightness in your chest
- Have shortness of breath for more than a couple of seconds
- Feel weak, lightheaded or faint
- Have sudden overwhelming fatigue
Don’t ignore your symptoms. If you think you are having heart problems or a heart attack, get help immediately. The sooner you get treatment, the greater the chance that the doctors can prevent further damage to the heart muscle.
What should I do if I think I am having a heart attack?
Immediately call for an ambulance to take you to the hospital. Don’t try to drive yourself. Follow their instructions.
How well you survive a heart attack depends on how quickly you get treatment, how much damage there is to your heart, and where that damage is.
Risk factors for a heart attack
- Age—the older you are, the higher your risk
- High cholesterol level
- High blood pressure
- Family history of heart attack
- Race—people of African, South Asian, and Indigenous descent are at increased risk
- Atherosclerosis (hardening of the arteries)
- Lack of exercise
- Illicit drugs (can cause a coronary artery spasm)
- Preeclampsia (causes high blood pressure during pregnancy and increases the lifetime risk of heart disease).
- A history of an autoimmune condition, such as rheumatoid arthritis or lupus.
- Sex (Gender) — More men have heart attacks, although heart disease and stroke is the leading cause of death for Canadian women.
How can I avoid having a heart attack?
Contact your family doctor about your specific risk factors for a heart attack and how to reduce your risk. Your doctor may tell you to do the following:
- Quit smoking. Your doctor can help you. (If you don’t smoke, don’t start!)
- Eat a healthy diet. Cut back on foods high in saturated fat and sodium (salt) to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. A Mediterranean diet is also a very healthy choice. Ask your doctor about how to improve your diet.
- Control your blood sugar if you have diabetes.
- To achieve health benefits, adults aged 18-64 years should accumulate at least 150 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity aerobic physical activity per week, in bouts of 10 minutes or more. Stretching and strength training are important too.
- Lose weight if you’re overweight. Your doctor can advise you about the best ways to lose weight.
- Control your blood pressure if you have hypertension.
- Don’t use illicit drugs.
Contact your doctor about whether aspirin would help reduce your risk of a heart attack. Aspirin can help keep your blood from forming clots that can eventually block the arteries.
FOR MORE INFORMATION
Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada
Nova Scotia Toll free 1-800-423-4432
Prince Edward Island: (902) 892-7441
Canadian Heart and Stroke Foundation Website at:
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
American Heart Association