Heart attack symptoms

Moving image showing where on the body heart attack symptoms are felt

A heart attack is life threatening.

If you're experiencing any of the symptoms described below, it is vital you dial 999 immediately for an ambulance.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Heart attack symptoms can vary but the most common signs of a heart attack are:

  • chest pain or discomfort that suddenly occurs and doesn’t go away. It may feel like pressure, squeezing or heaviness in your chest 
  • pain that may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach 
  • feeling sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.

Other less common symptoms include:

  • a sudden feeling of anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack
  • excessive coughing or wheezing.

Pain levels can also vary from person to person. For some people the pain or tightness in their chest is severe, while other people just feel uncomfortable, or pain similar to indigestion. 

Heart attack symptoms can persist over days, or they can come on suddenly and unexpectedly. 

What are the differences in heart attack symptoms for men and women?

It’s a common misconception that men and women experience different symptoms when having a heart attack. While symptoms vary from person to person, there are no symptoms that women experience more or less often than men. 

Women are more likely to dismiss the idea that they may be having a heart attack and delay seeking medical attention. It’s important to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack, take them seriously and act quickly to prevent damaging the heart muscle.

Learn more on our women and heart attacks page.

What do I do if I think I’m having a heart attack?

The first thing you must do is dial 999 immediately for an ambulance. 

Don’t worry if you’re not completely sure whether the symptoms are a heart attack, it’s really important that you seek medical attention regardless as quickly as possible. 

If you’re having a heart attack or you think you’re having a heart attack:

  • sit down and rest
  • take a 300mg aspirin if you have one within arm’s reach
  • stay calm and wait for the paramedics.

People often dismiss that they’re having a heart attack and will delay seeking medical attention. 

If you’re with someone who’s experiencing heart attack symptoms but they’re putting off or refusing to call an ambulance, it’s really important that you call one for them. 

What's the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

The phrases cardiac arrest and heart attack are often confused, however are different.

If you’re having a cardiac arrest you will be unconscious, not breathing or not breathing normally. Your heart has stopped pumping blood around your body and you’ll need CPR and medical attention immediately. 

During a heart attack you will be conscious and breathing, but experiencing chest pain or discomfort.

A heart attack is a medical emergency and can lead to cardiac arrest so it’s important to seek medical attention straight away.  

When is chest pain a heart attack? 

Chest pain can have many causes, such as a heart attack, angina, indigestion or muscle strain. 

Many people delay calling 999 when having chest pain as they often think it isn’t serious.

You should dial 999 immediately if your chest pain:

  • is sudden
  • spreads to you arms, back, neck or jaw
  • feels heavy or tight
  • lasts more than 15 minutes

Or if:

  • you become short of breath or start to feel sick

If your chest pain doesn’t match these characteristics and you aren’t experiencing any other heart attack symptoms, there may be other explanations for your chest pain. These include angina, indigestion or a strained muscle.

If you frequently experience unexplained chest pain, book an appointment with your GP as it’s possible you may have an undiagnosed heart condition.  

What's the difference between angina and a heart attack?

Angina is pain felt in your chest that is often caused by coronary heart disease. As the symptoms of angina are similar to a heart attack, it’s important to know how to distinguish between the two. 

If you haven’t been diagnosed with angina and you start experiencing chest pain that feels similar to the symptoms of a heart attack, phone 999 immediately.

If you have angina and you start experiencing chest pain symptoms similar to a heart attack:

  • sit down and rest
  • use your glyceryl trinitrate (GTN) spray that you’ve been prescribed 
  • if the pain still persists after a few minutes then take another dose of your spray 
  • if the pain doesn’t go away a few minutes after your second dose, dial 999 immediately as it could be a heart attack.  

What's the difference between indigestion and a heart attack?

Indigestion, or heartburn, is a feeling that usually comes on after eating. It causes a burning and uncomfortable sensation in your chest and abdomen, and often a sour taste in your mouth.

If you haven’t experienced heartburn or indigestion before and you are experiencing persistent burning chest pain or chest pain combined with other symptoms of a heart attack, phone 999 immediately.

If you’re prone to heartburn or indigestion and you’re experiencing the same symptoms as usual, take the steps you usually would to ease your discomfort, such as taking some medicine and/or drinking water.

If the burning feeling in your chests persists, or it begins to spread to your arms, neck or jaw, phone 999 immediately as you may be having a heart attack. 

Help and information

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The front cover of the British Heart Foundation

Heart attack