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How to Tell if You’re Having a Heart Attack

How to Tell if You’re Having a Heart Attack

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

Got a health question for Dr. Brent? E-mail him at

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Dr. Brent

As an undergraduate, Dr. Brent Ridge majored in public health and environmental science, studying the way the state of the natural environment impacts our health choices. As a physician, he specializes in the field of aging. Send your health questions to Dr. Brent at


+ add your own
1:19PM PDT on Apr 18, 2012


7:51PM PDT on Apr 14, 2012

I also question the accuracy of these tests as I have periodically read about people who have a heart stress test and it shows not problems and then they have a heart attack a few weeks later.

7:35PM PDT on Apr 14, 2012


11:19PM PST on Feb 2, 2012

I'm 69 and I want to go home. Don't worry, I'm not going to be an illegal (suicide). That could get me sent right back and going WAAAH! cause I don't want the mother assigned me. lol

Besides, I'm content with my life. I have no complaints except I have memories of better days.

Every once in a while, I get severe cramps in my chest. Really hurts! Sometimes the jaw hurts.

I walk over to my bed, lie down and say "Take me! Take me!"

I hear this gentle laughter.

Oh, well. Maybe next time. Meanwhile, I'll just do all the good I can do
and make sure I'm in good relationship with my Savior.

AND give thanks that my blessings are many and my troubles few. I'm too
busy with the problems of animals and environment and politicians to mess
with having problems of my own.

10:25AM PST on Nov 29, 2011


11:32PM PDT on Sep 18, 2011

Great information. Thanks!

1:00PM PDT on Sep 14, 2011

Every now and yet again I get those symptoms. I just go over and lay down and say "Take me. Take me." Then I hear
laughter. The pain goes away and I gotta get up and go on with all the mundaneness of Earth life.

I wanna go home!

4:37AM PDT on Sep 14, 2011

Thanks! It help us to be more aware.

2:04PM PDT on Sep 13, 2011

I've had these symptoms at various times over the last 6 years. At times I felt like I really was going to just stop, as in, lights out stop. The nausea and queasiness, light headedness, and this sinking feeling in my chest that felt like my heart would just stop a moment here and there. I've complained to my doctor on several occassions. I did have two exams where they monitored my heart and told me everything was fine. I've never really known how to accept that with such disconcerting experiences.

2:03PM PDT on Sep 13, 2011

Thank you

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