Signs and Symptoms of a Heart Attack

A heart attack—also known as a myocardial infarction—is a medical emergency that occurs when there is a loss of blood flow to your heart. Without adequate blood flow, your heart’s tissues lose oxygen very quickly and your heart isn’t able to pump blood throughout your body. As a result, you can experience symptoms such as chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, and lightheadedness.

Heart attacks most often occur due to a plaque (cholesterol) build-up within your coronary arteries (blood vessels supplying blood to the heart muscle)—which is a heart disease known as coronary artery disease (CAD). While most people experience some symptoms during a heart attack, it is also possible to have a heart attack without having any symptoms at all. This is known as a silent heart attack.

Keep in mind: if you or a loved one is showing symptoms of a heart attack, it’s paramount to call for medical help as soon as possible. Without treatment, a heart attack can lead to death. That’s why knowing the signs is so important. 

Health Photo Composite - Heart Attack

Design by Health

Chest Pain

The hallmark symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. This can feel like squeezing or tightness in the chest and may last anywhere from a few minutes to several hours. Chest pain can feel different from person to person. Some people may describe it as a dull ache that comes and goes and others may feel a throbbing pain that comes on suddenly. Typically, you might experience pain in the center or left side of your chest.

It’s important to note that chest pain is not only a symptom of heart attacks. You might experience chest pain because of muscle strain, heartburn, and panic attacks. If you are experiencing chest pain or discomfort for longer than a few minutes, it’s best to not delay seeing your healthcare provider, especially if you have an underlying heart condition.

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath may occur with or without chest pain, and sometimes it may be the only symptom a person experiences when having a heart attack. Feeling short of breath can make it difficult to walk, carry out daily tasks, or even have a conversation with someone. You may feel like you are working hard to catch your breath even while resting.

Like chest pain, shortness of breath does not only occur during a heart attack. It may also occur due to heavy exercise, anxiety, and asthma attacks. If you have shortness of breath that doesn’t go away once you are at rest or treat underlying anxiety or asthma, it’s a good idea to see a healthcare provider as soon as you can to determine the cause. 

Upper Body Discomfort

It’s common to experience other types of pain outside of chest pain when having a heart attack. Many people may feel discomfort, soreness, or aching in their arms, neck, back, jaw, and stomach. You may not experience discomfort in all of these areas at the same time and it’s common for the discomfort in your upper body to come and go.

Some studies are currently focusing on why upper body discomfort happens in the first place. Researchers have been investigating the role of the vagus nerve during a heart attack. The vagus nerve is responsible for sending information from your heart to your brain. Early theories suggest that upper body discomfort may happen because your arms, neck, and stomach are located close to your heart.

Cold Sweats

Some people can also experience cold sweats during a heart attack. These can occur when you feel cold and sweaty at the same time, but do not have a fever. However, cold sweats are common with several types of conditions and situations, including strenuous exercise, extreme stress, and low blood sugar. Experts suggest that sweating can happen during a heart attack because your fight-or-flight response becomes activated, which tells your brain that your body is under illness or threat.


During a heart attack, feeling sick to your stomach or queasy is a common experience. Feeling nauseous can also make you vomit.

If you’re experiencing nausea by itself, especially without the presence of chest pain or shortness of breath, this usually is not a cause for concern. In fact, nausea is a common symptom for several health conditions such as headache, indigestion, and pregnancy. However, women sometimes experience nausea as their only heart attack symptom.


Lightheadedness or dizziness may also occur during a heart attack. While this symptom may be less common than chest pain or discomfort, it should not be ignored. According to the American Heart Association, lightheadedness can be a symptom of serious conditions such as a heart attack, stroke, cardiomyopathy (a type of heart disease), and atrial fibrillation (rapid and irregular heart rhythm).

Strokes occur when there is reduced blood flow to the brain. Cardiomyopathy is a heart disease that makes it difficult for your heart to pump out blood, which can often be the result of a heart attack. Atrial fibrillation is an abnormal heart rhythm where the heart beats too fast or irregularly.

Symptoms in Women

The most common symptom of a heart attack for men and women is chest pain. However, it’s important to note that people assigned female at birth often experience different symptoms than people assigned male at birth. 

Women tend to experience pain in both arms, excessive fatigue, back pain, difficulty sleeping, flu-like symptoms, dizziness, and anxiety. Women are more likely to blame their symptoms on anxiety or stress—and as a result—are less likely to reach out for immediate medical attention. Unfortunately, women are also less likely to receive adequate care about a heart condition from healthcare providers.

When to See a Healthcare Provider

While heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person, it is important to seek immediate medical attention if you or a loved one are experiencing symptoms. This is especially true if you or a loved one have chest pain, shortness of breath, or an underlying heart condition. These symptoms can be life-threatening if you don’t receive proper treatment as soon as possible. 

A Quick Review

Heart attacks can look different for everyone and symptoms can range from unnoticeable to severely intense. The hallmark symptoms of a heart attack are chest pain and shortness of breath, however, nausea, upper body discomfort, and lightheadedness are also common. 

Keep in mind: a heart attack is a medical emergency—meaning, you should call 911, visit an urgent care facility, or make a trip to the emergency department as soon as you or a loved one start experiencing symptoms. If the condition is left untreated, a heart attack can be fatal. 

Was this page helpful?
11 Sources uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. American Heart Association. Warning signs of a heart attack.  

  2. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is atherosclerosis?

  3. MedlinePlus. Heart attack.

  4. American Heart Association. Angina (chest pain).

  5. Breit S, Kupferberg A, Rogler G, Hasler G. Vagus nerve as modulator of the brain–gut axis in psychiatric and inflammatory disorders. Front Psychiatry. 2018;9:44. doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2018.00044

  6. Capilupi MJ, Kerath SM, Becker LB. Vagus nerve stimulation and the cardiovascular system. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2020;10(2):a034173. doi:10.1101/cshperspect.a034173

  7. American Heart Association. Lightheadedness may be a symptom of atrial fibrillation, cardiomyopathy or stroke

  8. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Atrial fibrillation.

  9. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Cardiomyopathy.

  10. American Heart Association. Heart attack symptoms in women.

  11. Balla S, Gomez SE, Rodriguez F. Disparities in cardiovascular care and outcomes for women from racial/ethnic minority backgrounds. Curr Treat Options Cardiovasc Med. 2020;22(12):75. doi:10.1007/s11936-020-00869-z

Related Articles