Heart Attack and Stroke: Symptoms & Helping a Victim


Heart attack and stroke are life-and-death emergencies—every second counts. Some heart attacks are sudden and intense; but most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Sometimes, people are not sure what is wrong and wait too long before getting help. Learning the signs can help save a life.

Heart Attack Symptoms

  • 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.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Even if you are not certain it is a heart attack, have it checked out and tell your doctor about your symptoms.

Stroke Symptoms

Spot a stroke FAST.

  • Face Drooping. Does one side of the face droop or is it numb? Ask the person to smile.
  • Arm Weakness. Is one arm weak or numb? Ask the person to raise both arms. Does one arm drift downward?
  • Speech Difficulty. Is speech slurred, are they unable to speak, or are they hard to understand? Ask the person to repeat a simple sentence.
  • Time to call 911.If the person shows any of these symptoms, even if they go away, call 911 and get them to the hospital immediately.

Other symptoms you should know include sudden numbness or weakness of the leg, confusion or trouble understanding, trouble seeing in one or both eyes, trouble walking, dizziness, loss of balance or coordination and severe headache with no known cause.

With both heart attack and stroke, not all of these signs occur or they may not be continuous.

Helping a Victim

If you witness or experience any of the listed symptoms, immediately call 911 for faster treatment and transport to the emergency room. Emergency medical services (EMS) staff can begin treatment when they arrive—which is sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. EMS staff also have new medications and treatments available to help patients that must be given relatively quickly to be effective, which is why calling 911 is critical. If you cannot reach EMS, drive the person to the hospital. If you are the one with the symptoms, do not drive yourself to the hospital unless you have no other choice.

Be sure to check the time the first symptoms appeared so you can update EMS staff and emergency room personnel.

While waiting for EMS, try to keep the person calm, and have the victim sit or lie down. If the person is not allergic to aspirin, have them chew a baby aspirin. If the person stops breathing, you or someone else who is qualified should perform CPR right away. If you do not know CPR, the 911 operator can help you until EMS personnel arrive.

Be Prepared

Nobody plans on having a heart attack. There are steps you can take to be prepared.

  • Know the list of heart attack and stroke symptoms.
  • Talk to family and friends about the warning signs and the importance of calling 911 immediately.
  • Know your risk factors and do what you can to reduce them.
  • Learn CPR so you can help a victim.
  • Write down information about prescriptions, allergies, your doctor’s number and emergency contact in case you go to the hospital. Keep this information in your wallet.
  • Arrange to have someone care for your children and/or pets if an emergency happens.


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