Q: This might sound weird, but I am worried about my husband having a heart attack and I seem to remember an old wives’ tale about smelling burnt toast when you’re having a heart attack. What are the real signs?
A: Those old wives are always up to something! I think it is wonderful that you are looking after your husband’s health. Research has shown that people in long-term committed relationships tend to be healthier, and part of this must be the result of a little concerned nagging.
I am most familiar with the “burnt toast” tale in the setting of stroke. Olfactory hallucinations are not an uncommon warning sign that something is going on in the brain. While I’ve never heard a patient mention this in relation to a heart attack, it’s plausible that if a heart attack severely disrupted flow of blood to the brain that such a hallucination could occur.
However, you’d want to prevent a heart attack long before it ever got to this point. The common warning signs of a heart attack are:
1. Chest discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or that goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
2. Discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Symptoms can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
Other signs may include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness
As with men, women’s most common heart attack symptom is chest pain or discomfort. But women are somewhat more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Keep in mind that most heart attacks are not as dramatic and intense as Hollywood would have us believe. Mild symptoms are the norm and often the reason that people fail to get timely treatment.
Dr. Brent Ridge is the health expert for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia. You can call and ask him a question live every Tuesday at 2 p.m. Eastern on Sirius Satellite Radio, Channel 112 (1.866.675.6675). You can also follow along as he learns to grow his own food and raise goats on his farm in upstate New York by visiting www.beekman1802.com.
Got a health question for Dr. Brent? E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org.