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Am I Having a Heart Attack?

Some signs are surprising — especially for women

En español | If you Googled this article because you think you're having a heart attack — stop. Call 911. Then chew an aspirin. Don’t be like comedienne Rosie O’Donnell, who last week suffered a heart attack, but instead of seeking emergency treatment, spent precious time searching online for information about heart attack symptoms.

Am I Having a Heart Attack: Rosie O'Donnell

Rosie O' Donnell suffered a heart attack. If you think you're having one, call 911 immediately. — RD/Eckstein/Retna/Corbis

"If you think you're having a heart attack, that's not the time to try and figure out whether you're right," says Gordon Tomaselli, M.D., president-elect of the American Heart Association. Call an ambulance immediately.

Yet “heart attack signs” is among the most commonly searched terms, according to the search engine Google. The number of searches for that term has increased by a whopping 90 percent in the last five years or so, according a company spokesperson.

One reason many people don’t, as O'Donnell put it in a recent blog post, “listen to the voice inside” and make the call is they’re afraid of embarassing themselves, if it turns out they’re not in fact suffering a heart attack.

But another reason is that it's not always easy to tell whether one is having a heart attack — even doctors have a tough time knowing without tests.
 
"It's not always straightforward," says Tomaselli. Many people, especially women, do not have the classic symptoms — pressing chest pain, sweating and nausea — when experiencing a heart attack.

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Common symptoms in men and women

You should pay particular attention to the following signs if — like more than half of all Americans — you are over 50, have high blood pressure, have high cholesterol, are a smoker or have a family history of heart disease. A heart attack occurs when the blood supply to the heart is blocked, damaging the muscle. Chewing aspirin (either one regular or two baby) helps the heart by thinning the blood.

  • Chest pain: Most people do call 911 or get to the hospital if they feel like they've got an elephant sitting on their chest, but even this most common heart attack symptom may be hard to recognize. It may just feel like a squeezing that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back. "It may be a chest fullness that they don't recognize as pain," says Tomaselli, who is also chief of cardiology at the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine. "Sometimes it doesn't particularly hurt. It's an uncomfortable sensation." If chest pain lasts more than five minutes, go to the emergency room.

Next: What symptoms are more common to women than men? »

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