The unusual heart attack symptoms you need to know

Do you know the symptoms of a heart attack? Here’s what to look out for – and how to prevent one.

Would you recognise a heart attack if you were having one? A new NHS survey suggests that while most people know chest pain is a symptom, they’re not aware of some of the other important symptoms.

Fewer than half of people knew that another heart attack symptom is sweating and only a third would spot the other signs, which include feeling weak, lightheaded or generally uneasy.

A new NHS campaign aims to highlight the lesser-known symptoms – and although there’s a chance they could be nothing to worry about, it’s important to call for help quickly rather than ignore them.

Latest NHS figures show that the number of people admitted to hospital in England with a heart attack has risen to one of the highest levels ever – 84,000 in 2021-22. That’s 7,000 more than in the previous year (when heart attack diagnoses fell during the pandemic) and nearly 2,000 more than in 2019-20.

Red plastic heart on an ECG chartCredit: Shutterstock / sasirin pamai

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

  • Chest pain – this could be severe or minor, similar to indigestion.
  • A feeling of pressure, heaviness, tightness or squeezing across your chest.
  • Pain in other parts of your body – and a feeling that pain is spreading from your chest to your arms (particularly the left), jaw, neck, back and stomach.
  • Feeling lightheaded or dizzy.
  • Sweating.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Feeling or being sick.
  • A feeling of unease or anxiety, similar to a panic attack.
  • Coughing or wheezing due to a build-up of fluid in your lungs.
  • If you notice any of these symptoms, it’s important to dial 999 and get them checked immediately.

What is a heart attack?

If you’re having a heart attack, it means the supply of blood to your heart has become blocked, which can starve it of oxygen, potentially causing serious muscle damage. You could still be conscious and breathing. 

Heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person and it’s better to dial 999 early than ignore them if you think something’s wrong.  Women, in particular, are being advised to take heart attack symptoms seriously, as their risk increases after the menopause. But the British Heart Foundation warns that women tend to not recognise the symptoms because they believe it’s more of a male problem. In fact, 30,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack every year – and they should look out for the same symptoms as men.

Your chances of surviving a heart attack are boosted if you seek care earlier: around one in seven people survive, but that increases to more than nine out of ten (94%) if you seek help as soon as possible after the onset of symptoms. A heart attack is a medical emergency, so don’t worry about wasting paramedics’ time: call 999 for an ambulance immediately.

Professor Nick Linker, cardiologist and NHS national clinical director for heart disease, said: “Cardiovascular disease causes one in four deaths across the country, so it is vital that people are aware of the early signs of a heart attack.

“Every moment that passes during a heart attack increases heart muscle damage and nearly all of the damage takes place within the first few hours, so if you experience symptoms such as a sensation of squeezing or tightness across the chest alongside sweating, nausea, or a sense of unease, please call 999 so you have the best chance of a full recovery”.

Dr Charmaine Griffiths, chief executive at the British Heart Foundation (BHF), said: “Every minute matters when somebody is having a heart attack, and could be the difference between life and death. Even if the symptoms don’t seem severe, such as a feeling of squeezing or tightness across the chest – call 999 immediately. A heart attack is a medical emergency and immediate action could save your life.”

“My heart attack symptoms were silent”

As Louise Finan, 60, from West London, told Saga Exceptional, there are more heart attack symptoms than just chest pain. “My first heart attack happened when I was under a lot of stress. I’d been in bed with pneumonia and I knew I didn’t feel right, but I didn’t have the traditional symptoms such as chest pains,” she said.

“Fortunately, my daughter called an ambulance – the paramedics spotted I was having a silent heart attack and took me to hospital. Just as the doctors were treating me, I felt a huge pressure across my chest. It felt like someone had put a concrete slab on me.

“I had to have a blood clot removed and I later had a stem cell transplant. There are so many scenarios with heart attacks, so if you think something’s wrong you should never ignore the feeling.”

  • Find out more about Heart Cells Foundation, which funds pioneering research and development of a treatment that uses a patient’s own stem cells to repair the heart.

What can I do to prevent heart attacks?

  • The British Heart Foundation has advice on keeping your heart healthy:
  • Keep active: walking, gardening and any movement is good for you. Find out more about the benefits of cardio exercise and strength training.
  • Maintain a healthy weight and eat well to prevent extra strain on your heart.
  • Limit your alcohol intake to less than the recommended 14 units a week.
  • Stop smoking.
  • Keep an eye on your blood pressure and cholesterol levels.
  • The NHS in England offers a free health check for people aged 40 to 74 to spot early signs of heart disease, as well as other conditions.
Hannah Verdier

Written by Hannah Verdier

Updated:

Hannah Verdier writes about fitness, health, relationships, podcasts, TV and the joy of reinventing yourself at 50 and beyond. She’s a graduate of teenage music bible Smash Hits and has a side hustle as a fitness trainer who shows people who hated PE at school how to love exercise.

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