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Heart Attack Warning Signs

Contributor(s): DaMarcus Baymon, MD, and Katherine D. Rose, MD
3 minute read
Man in a blue t-shirt clutches his chest while sitting on a white couch

Someone in the U.S. suffers a heart attack every 40 seconds, but a quick emergency response can help save lives.

DaMarcus Baymon, MD, a Mass General Brigham emergency medicine doctor, explains what to do if you think someone is having a heart attack. Dr. Baymon cares for patients at Brigham and Women’s Hospital main campus and Brigham and Women’s Faulkner Hospital.

Many heart attacks are very recognizable from their symptoms, but in fact, nearly half of people who have a heart attack don’t realize it at the time.

DaMarcus Baymon, MD
Emergency Medicine Doctor
Mass General Brigham

What are signs and symptoms of a heart attack?

If you think someone is showing signs of a heart attack, call 911 right away.

“Many heart attacks are very recognizable from their symptoms, but in fact, nearly half of people who have a heart attack don’t realize it at the time,” says Dr. Baymon.

Heart attack signs and symptoms in both men and women can include:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat at rest
  • Weakness or light-headedness
  • Pain or discomfort in the neck, back, jaw, arms, or shoulders

For women, symptoms can also include:

What to do if having a heart attack

After you’ve called 911, “Emergency medication can do a lot to reduce damage to the heart,” says Dr. Baymon.

Ask the person to chew and swallow an aspirin immediately, as long as they aren’t allergic to it. This can help thin the blood.

If the person already has a heart condition and has been prescribed nitroglycerin by their cardiologist, they should take the medication right away. Nitroglycerin treats chest pain in people with coronary artery disease. It works by relaxing blood vessels, which reduces the workload of the heart.

If the person isn’t breathing or doesn’t have a pulse, start performing CPR and use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one’s available nearby.

How to do CPR

CPR chest compressions help keep blood flowing to the brain and vital organs. It can increase the chances of survival.

To perform CPR:

  • Place 1 hand over the other and press firmly in the middle of the person’s chest with the heel of your hand.
  • Do 2 compressions per second, or 100 to 120 compressions per minute.
  • People with CPR training can give 2 rescue breaths every 15 or 20 seconds.

If you’ve called 911, the emergency dispatcher also can give you instructions over the phone.

Use an AED

If an AED is available, follow the instructions carefully and use it on the person as soon as possible. An AED is a portable medical device designed to help someone having a heart attack. They’re often found in public places, like schools, airports, and businesses. They can be used by the general public as well as medical personnel. 

AEDs analyze the heart’s rhythm and give an electric shock if it detects an abnormal rhythm. They may come with sets of pads for adults and children, but adult pads should be used on anyone age 8 and up.

Here’s how to use an AED:

  1. Turn on the AED. Follow the voice prompts. The AED may turn on automatically when you open the lid.
  2. Remove any clothing that covers the chest. Check that the skin is dry.
  3. Remove the backing from two sticky pads with sensors (also called electrodes).
  4. Attach the sticky pads to the person’s chest. If needed, insert the pad connector cable into the AED.
  5. The AED checks the heart rhythm. It may notify you that a shock is needed. Or it may give a shock automatically. Make sure no one is touching the person when you give the shock.
  6. If no shock is needed, resume CPR.
  7. If a shock is needed, press a button to deliver the shock. Resume CPR once the shock is given.
  8. Continue CPR until emergency services arrive.

“These simple steps can help to reduce damage to the heart, and may even save a life,” Dr. Baymon says.

Learn about Mass General Brigham Heart services

DaMarcus Baymon, MD


Emergency Medicine Physician


Internal Medicine Physician