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To Survive a Heart Attack, Don't Delay

Importance of Acting Quickly

If you experience any of the symptoms of heart attack, the most important thing you can do to protect your heart is to call 9-1-1 right away. See Heart Attack Action Plan for more steps you can take while help is on the way.

Today’s heart attack treatments are better than ever at restoring blood flow to the heart, rescuing your heart muscle and potentially saving your life. However, when it comes to heart attack, "time is muscle" —the sooner blood flow is restored, the less permanent damage to your heart and the better your chances of a full recovery. The best heart attack treatments are most effective if they are given within a few hours of your first symptoms.

Despite the importance of getting help quickly, women take longer than men to seek treatment during a heart attack. This is one of the main reasons women tend to do worse after a heart attack than men do. If you wait too long to call for help, you may not be eligible for life-saving treatments by the time you get to the hospital.1 One in three women take more than 6 hours to get to the hospital after their symptoms first appeared—by then the best treatments can do little to help.2

Why do women wait so long?

Though it is not known for sure, it may be because women are less likely than men to realize they are at risk for heart disease.3 Women's heart symptoms may also be harder to recognize for both women and their doctors, causing longer decision times that only delay treatment. Whatever the reason, the solution is clear: if you notice heart attack symptoms, don’t delay—call 9-1-1 right away. If you get help quickly, your chances of surviving and having a complete recovery are very good.

Be a Survivor, not a Delayer

The right response to heart attack symptoms can be broken down into four simple words: Act Quickly, Call 9-1-1. Yet many women who experience heart attack symptoms wait hours before seeking help, losing valuable time and putting themselves at risk for further heart damage. The table below lists some reasons why women delay seeking help, and some strategies that "successful survivors" have used to overcome these fears and act quickly.

Help after Heart Attack: Delayers versus Survivors
Reason Delayers Survivors
Knowledge of symptoms Did not know that women’s heart symptoms could be different, or did not think symptoms were severe enough to call an ambulance. Know that heart attack can produce a wide range of symptoms in women. Realize that symptoms can come on gradually, come and go, and may not be severe. Know that the symptoms of a second heart attack may be different from those of the first.
Response to symptoms Tell themselves that symptoms are probably not serious, wait for them to go away on their own. May ask others what they think is causing the symptoms, or try treatments for other conditions. Only call for help after other treatments fail. Take symptoms seriously and let doctors sort out the cause. Realize that while many other conditions can cause similar symptoms, it is better to be safe than sorry.
Perception of risk Do not know their own heart risk, or do not think a heart attack can happen to them. Realize that heart attacks are common in women and can happen at any age, even if you does not have risk factors for heart disease. Know their own heart risk (Click here to calculate yours).
Concern with troubling others Fear that their trip to the hospital will trouble or disturb others, including family members or doctors. Don’t want to call at night or on a weekend. Realize that protecting yourself is the best way to continue to care for others. Know that the hospital staff and emergency responders are there to help, and that doctors would be happy to diagnose you with something less serious than a heart attack.
Embarrassment Do not want to deal with the attention of an ambulance coming, worried about being embarassed if symptoms turn out not to be serious. Realize that embarrassment will pass quickly and without long-term damage—a heart attack will not
Action taken once decision is made Call their family doctor, have someone drive them to the hospital, or drive herself. Call 9-1-1. Know that calling 9-1-1 is the fastest way to get treatment, and that calling your family doctor or driving to the hospital only delays treatment.

See Symptoms of Heart Attack to learn how to recognize all the signs of heart attack in women, and How to Survive a Heart Attack for what to do if you experience them. By knowing the symptoms and calling 9-1-1 right away if you experience them, you are giving yourself the best possible chance of surviving a heart attack without permanent heart damage.


  1. Cohen M, Boiangiu C, Abidi M. Therapy for ST-segment elevation myocardial infarction patients who present late or are ineligible for reperfusion therapy. J Am Coll Cardiol. May 4;55(18):1895-1906.
  2. Sheifer SE, Rathore SS, Gersh BJ, et al. Time to presentation with acute myocardial infarction in the elderly: associations with race, sex, and socioeconomic characteristics. Circulation. Oct 3 2000;102(14):1651-1656.
  3. Patel H, Rosengren A, Ekman I. Symptoms in acute coronary syndromes: does sex make a difference? Am Heart J. Jul 2004;148(1):27-33.

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