top of page
  • Writer's pictureJo Soria

Heart Health Highlight: How to Spot a Heart Attack

February is American Heart Month, and this year is a really special one; the American Heart Association is turning 100. Honor the occasion by focusing on a key heart health lesson: how to help identify and support a person suffering from a cardiac event.

rican Heart Month; Spot a heart attackHeart health; Ame

The Facts on Heart Attacks

We often think of film and TV portrayals of a heart attack: an older or middle-aged person, typically a man, suddenly clutches their chest and doubles over, prompting panicked reactions from the people around them. But are there other signs or symptoms we should be concerned about? And aside from calling 911, how can we best support someone going through a cardiac event?

What is a Heart Attack?

Before diving into what signs to look for, let’s look at what a heart attack is and how it differs from other cardiac events.

To simplify, a heart attack happens when fat, cholesterol, blood clots, or other substances block oxygen-carrying blood flow from getting to the heart. Obviously, oxygen deprivation can carry significant consequences for any of our organs. Still, as the body’s critical life-sustaining pump, oxygen blockages to areas of the heart can quickly become devastating. The resulting damage or death sustained by the heart muscle is known as a heart attack.

What’s the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest?

While a heart attack involves blockages within the arteries, cardiac arrest happens when the heart malfunctions and stops pumping blood to the body’s organs. People often use these terms interchangeably, but it’s important to understand the fundamental differences between these two conditions and how we can most effectively respond to them in an emergency.

A “Circulatory Problem” vs. an “Electrical Problem”

We can best remember the difference by thinking of a heart attack as more of a “circulatory” or obstruction problem. At the same time, cardiac arrest involves more of an “electrical” or pumping problem. Heart attacks can also be the underlying cause of cardiac arrest.

When You Suspect a Cardiac Event or Other Medical Emergency 

Regardless of which cardiac event we suspect we’re witnessing, it’s critical to call 9-1-1 immediately and do your best to communicate the location and circumstances to the dispatcher clearly. Now, let’s look at what we can do to further assist with identifying key signs of heart attacks and cardiac events.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

  • Intense discomfort, pressure, or tightening sensation in the chest or upper body

  • Unexplained pain or discomfort in the neck, jaw, arms, stomach, or back

  • Cold sweats or clamminess

  • Shortness of breath or lightheadedness

  • Nausea or vomiting

While symptoms may come on quickly, the more likely scenario is that they’ve been slowly building over the hours, days, or even weeks preceding the heart attack.

Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

In addition to some of the common symptoms associated with heart attacks—chest pain, shortness of breath, or nausea, for instance—a person may also experience heart palpitations (rapid or pounding heartbeat) or lose consciousness.

American Heart Month; image of heart valve; How to spot a heart attack

When Calling 9-1-1 Isn’t Enough: What To Do if You Think Someone is Having a Heart Attack or Cardiac Event

As the nationwide rate of heart disease continues to climb, it’s more critical than ever to educate ourselves on how we can help someone who’s suffering a cardiac event. But sadly, according to the American Heart Association, fewer than half of the people who suffer cardiac arrest outside of a hospital receive immediate CPR to hold them over until medical professionals arrive.

Hands-Only CPR

Health professionals are urging civilians to learn CPR or update their certifications if they’ve become outdated. People with expired certifications, for instance, may not know that a hands-only CPR method is now the standard for civilian first aid.

American Heart Month; Heart attack vs cardiac arrest; CPR infographic
Infographic Source: The American Heart Association

Outside of an emergency setting, consider finding a CPR course to take, or if you’re already certified, work with your local health agency to arrange a course for your workplace or interested community members.

Going through a heart attack or cardiac event is probably one of the most frightening experiences a person can face. By learning some simple steps, we can potentially save a life and help support them until medical professionals arrive.


Want to be a guest blogger with the #TRN Team? We are looking for writers to contribute. Reach out to to get started.

Recent Posts

See All


bottom of page