What happens when you delay treatment for heart attack symptoms?

February 09, 2021 | by Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

A tight feeling in your chest. Sweating. Feeling light-headed or nauseous. When the symptoms of a heart attack start, there are a number of reasons people may not seek medical treatment.

Heart attacks can be subtle. They don’t always come with sudden, severe chest pain, like they seem to in the movies.

In fact, most heart attacks begin slowly with mild symptoms. Common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Chest discomfort, pain or pressure (also known as angina). The pain is often in the center of the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. It can feel like fullness, squeezing, pain or uncomfortable pressure.
  • Discomfort or pain in other areas of the body, such as the jaw, neck, back, stomach or one or both arms. Women are more likely to experience heart attack symptoms in other areas of the body than men.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea/vomiting, lightheadedness or fainting, extreme fatigue.

But chest pressure, nausea or shortness of breath can be explained away, especially by someone who doesn’t realize they have cardiovascular disease.

Women can experience heart attacks differently from men. While men often feel typical symptoms such as chest pressure and arm pain, a woman might feel shortness of breath without any chest discomfort. Or she might feel fatigued or lightheaded, or complain of indigestion. Some women have upper back pressure.

Even when someone thinks they’re having a heart attack, they may not seek help right away because they don’t want to bother anyone or they feel embarrassed about calling 911.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic began, some have also resisted medical treatment for heart attack symptoms out of fear of going to a hospital emergency room where they may be more likely to catch the virus from another patient.

So, what happens to your heart when you delay treatment for heart attack symptoms?

A heart attack starts when the blood flowing to the heart muscle is severely restricted or cut off by plaque inside arteries.

When treatment is delayed, the heart muscle can stop pumping and the muscle cells become damaged or begin to die. The longer treatment is delayed, the more damage can occur.

Some medications can be used to break up clots clogging the arteries. These medications must be given as soon as possible from the start of heart attack symptoms to reduce damage to the heart muscle.

Other interventions can help restore blood flow to the heart. A stent or angioplasty can be used to open narrowed or blocked arteries, or a bypass procedure may be able to restore the heart muscle’s blood supply. These interventions tend to work best when given within an hour after a heart attack starts.

When given soon after a heart attack starts, treatment can be lifesaving. It can also reduce the risk of a second and potentially more harmful heart attack later. Large heart attacks that are not treated early can lead to heart failure. It’s important to seek help immediately when heart attack symptoms occur. Don’t drive to a hospital yourself. Instead, call 911 so an experienced EMS team can begin treatment and get you to the nearest emergency room.

The longer someone waits, the greater the risk of heart damage. It’s better to go to the hospital and discover you weren’t having a heart attack than to stay where you are and take your chances.

Don’t avoid getting critical care when you need it. Call 911 if the situation is life-threatening. Otherwise, head to the ER. Learn how we’re keeping you safe as we treat your emergencies.

Your heart is in good hands when you choose us for cardiovascular care. Learn more about our high-quality heart care.

Know your risk for heart disease. Take a free, 5-minute test that could save your life.

At Edward-Elmhurst Health, your safety and well-being continues to remain our top priority. Learn more about our Safety Commitment.

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