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What is a heart attack? Causes, symptoms, treatment

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Symptoms include chest pain, feeling of heartburn, indigestion.
/ Source: NBC News

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. It’s different from a stroke, which happens when a blood vessel that feeds the brain gets blocked or bursts.

A heart attack is usually caused when plaque — made of fat, cholesterol and other substances — slowly builds up in coronary arteries and then breaks open, causing a blood clot to form, according to the American Heart Association. If the clot becomes large enough, it can block an artery and the flow of oxygen-rich blood.

When that happens, the heart muscle begins to die. The longer a person waits to get treated, the more heart muscle damage he or she risks. A less common cause of heart attack is a severe spasm of a coronary artery.

The flu can raise people’s risk of a heart attack, reinforcing the importance of getting a flu vaccine, researchers reported.

About 735,000 Americans have a heart attack every year, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

What are the symptoms?

The classic sign is chest pain. The feeling could be sharp, dull or the sensation that an elephant is sitting on your chest. It can also feel like heartburn or indigestion.

More subtle signs include nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, unusual fatigue, lightheadedness, dizziness and breaking out in a cold sweat.

Women have more fatigue, shortness of breath, or nausea and vomiting than men. Women also more frequently have pain in the neck, jaw, throat, abdomen or back, the CDC notes.

How is a heart attack treated?

Immediate treatment includes chewing a single full-sized 325-mg aspirin. It stops platelets from clumping together, which helps to stop the clot from building up.

Nitroglycerin can help improve blood flow through the coronary arteries.

Medicines known as “clot busters” can dissolve blood clots that are blocking the coronary arteries. To work best, they must be given within several hours of the start of heart attack symptoms.

Can anything predict someone’s risk of a heart attack?

Doctors run many different tests to assess someone’s risk of heart disease. They measure cholesterol, blood pressure and heart rate, and may also run imaging tests to check for clogged arteries. If they're detected, bypass surgery can direct blood flow around the clogged parts, while stents can prop open the narrowed blood vessels.

Researchers are developing better imaging methods to predict who is most at risk of a heart attack or stroke.