How Long Does a Heart Attack Last? Recognize & Respond Quickly
Heart attack is a leading cause of death in the United States, and, like Sudden Cardiac Arrest, it is a condition that is often misunderstood. Answers to the question how long does a heart attack last can vary from case to case, as heart attacks can last for several minutes, a few hours, or even run their course over a day. In the article below, we’re breaking down what happens during a heart attack, how to identify the warning signs, and sharing how you can take action in your day-to-day life to prevent one from happening.
When It’s Not Sudden Cardiac Arrest
While people often use the terms “heart attack” and “Sudden Cardiac Arrest” interchangeably, the two emergency medical problems are not the same, and they are caused by different underlying conditions. The mix up is understandable, though, because both conditions impact the heart muscle and require swift emergency medical care.
The CDC reports about 805,000 heart attacks in the United States every year. Victims in the midst of a heart attack generally have around 30 minutes before the attack causes serious and potentially irreversible harm to the heart. So, being able to identify a heart attack can very well help save a life, even your own.
Identifying the Warning Signs of a Heart Attack
A heart attack is often caused by a buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries, which can lead to dangerous blockage. This blockage reduces or entirely cuts off blood flow to the heart, and when the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen-rich blood, it begins to die.
Knowing how to recognize the symptoms of a heart attack is essential to seeking prompt medical attention. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the chest which can feel like pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain. This uncomfortable pain in the center of the chest can last anywhere from minutes to hours or may even come and go. Sometimes this pain spreads to the arms, neck, jaw, back, and abdomen.
Silent heart attacks, on the other hand, often go undetected because their warning signs are so subtle. These symptoms can also get confused with aging pain, exhaustion, indigestion, and heartburn. Interestingly, silent heart attacks are more likely to affect men than women.
Once you suspect a heart attack, it’s important to seek medical treatment as soon as possible by calling 911. Because heart attack symptoms can vary in their severity and level of pain, some people may think they can drive themselves to the hospital; under no circumstances should someone who believes they might be having a heart attack drive themselves to the hospital.
Symptoms in Men vs. Women
Symptoms of a heart attack can look different in men and women, and it’s important to acknowledge that most of what the medical community knows about heart disease comes from research focused on middle-aged men. As a result, it’s more often that men exhibit what is understood to be the “classic” heart attack symptoms: chest pain, pressure or discomfort that may travel to the arm, neck, or jaw.
In contrast, women may experience less recognized symptoms like fatigue, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, back pain, or jaw pain. These symptoms can be subtle and may not be immediately recognized as heart-related, leading to delayed treatment and potentially worse outcomes.
How Long Does a Heart Attack Last?
Sometimes a heart attack can happen quickly with strong symptoms, but most of the time it starts slowly with only a little discomfort and pain. Symptoms can slowly get worse over a few hours or a few days before the heart attack actually happens. The length of the attack can also depend on many things, such as the root cause and severity.
The longer someone experiences symptoms of a heart attack, the greater the damage can be. Again, this is why seeking emergency medical treatment as soon as you suspect a heart attack is crucial. Sometimes people may confuse heart attack symptoms with other causes of chest pain like panic attack or anxiety, digestive issues, or general muscle pain, but remember, it is better to have a false alarm than it is to wait until it is too late.
Recovery from a heart attack also happens at different rates: it might take a few weeks or several months before a person feels better enough to resume their usual routine, especially if they are a more active individual!
Know Your Risks
Understanding your risks for a heart attack is the first step to preventing them from happening.
Researchers have found coronary heart disease to be the most common cause of a heart attack. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for most people in the US, and does not discriminate based on racial or ethnic backgrounds. For Black people, white folks, American Indian and Alaska Native peoples, heart disease remains the #1 cause of death in this country. For Asian Americans, Pacific Islanders, and Latinx people, heart disease is the second most common cause of death after cancer.
Across ethnic lines, pre-existing conditions that can increase the risk of a heart attack include:
- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol
There are also several lifestyle-related risk factors for developing coronary heart disease, including:
- Smoking and vaping
- Unhealthy eating habits
- Drinking too much alcohol
- Lack of exercise
How to Prevent Heart Attacks
Once you understand your risk factors, the best way to prevent a heart attack is to make healthy lifestyle choices. For adults, living a healthy lifestyle includes 2½ hours of moderate or 75 minutes of vigorous physical activity every week. It also includes abstaining from smoking and heavy drinking and eating a variety of healthy foods.
Regular visits to the doctor and taking proper care of your pre-existing conditions is also crucial for reducing your risk of a heart attack.
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