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Home Health Library Chest pain: First aid

Chest pain: First aid

Learn about the different types of chest pain and what first-aid steps to take if chest pain occurs.

Overview

First aid for chest pain depends on the cause. Serious health conditions such as a heart attack can cause chest pain. Other causes of chest pain include infections and bruised chest muscles. If you have new or sudden chest pain, get emergency medical help.

When to seek emergency help

Call 911 or your local emergency number if you have sudden severe chest pain or any unexplained chest pain that lasts more than a few minutes.

Also get emergency medical help if you have:

  • Sudden severe upper back or neck pain.
  • Sudden severe stomach pain.
  • Difficulty breathing.
  • Symptoms of stroke, including sudden change in vision, difficulty speaking, and weakness or loss of movement on one side of your body.
  • Swelling in one leg, which could be due to a blood clot.
  • Loss of consciousness or fainting.

These symptoms can be caused by many different health conditions. Other symptoms not listed also may need emergency help. So it's important to get a quick diagnosis. If you feel like you can't breathe well or are having a heart attack, get medical help immediately.

Symptoms

Symptoms of chest pain depend on the cause. Common examples include:

Heart attack

A heart attack generally causes chest pain for more than 15 minutes. The pain may be mild or severe. Some heart attacks happen suddenly. But sometimes warning symptoms happen hours or days in advance.

Heart attack symptoms may include:

  • Chest pain that may feel like pressure, tightness, pain, squeezing or aching.
  • Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulder, arm, back, neck, jaw, teeth or sometimes the upper belly.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Fatigue.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.
  • Heartburn.
  • Nausea.

In women, chest pain is not always severe or even the most noticeable symptom. Women tend to have more-vague symptoms, such as nausea or back or jaw pain. These symptoms may be more intense than the chest pain.

If you or someone else may be having a heart attack, follow these first-aid steps:

  • Call 911 or emergency medical help. If an ambulance or emergency vehicle can't come to you, have someone drive you to the nearest hospital. Drive yourself only if there are no other options.
  • Take aspirin, if recommended. Taking aspirin during a heart attack may reduce heart damage. Don't take an aspirin unless a healthcare professional says to do so. Don't delay calling 911 to take an aspirin. Call for emergency help first.
  • Take nitroglycerin, if prescribed. If you think you're having a heart attack and your healthcare professional has previously prescribed nitroglycerin for you, take it as directed. Don't take anyone else's nitroglycerin.
  • Start CPR if the person doesn't have a pulse or isn't breathing. If you're untrained in CPR, do hands-only CPR. That means push hard and fast on the person's chest about 100 to 120 times a minute. If you're trained in CPR and confident in your ability, start with 30 chest compressions before giving two rescue breaths.
  • Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is immediately available and the person is unconscious. The device sends shocks to the heart to reset the heart rhythm. AEDs come with step-by-step voice instructions for their use. They only give a shock when appropriate.

Angina

Angina is chest pain or discomfort caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. The chest pain may feel like:

  • Squeezing.
  • Pressure.
  • Something heavy on the chest.
  • Tightness or other discomfort.

Stable angina symptoms usually last five minutes or less. The symptoms usually go away with rest or medicine. If the angina pain doesn't go away with rest or medicine, get emergency medical help.

Pneumonia with pleurisy

Pneumonia is an infection of the air sacs in the lungs. Pleurisy is swelling and irritation of the tissues that surround the lung. Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain, especially when taking a breath or coughing.
  • Chills.
  • Fever.
  • Cough that may produce bloody or foul-smelling sputum.

Unlike a true heart attack, pleurisy pain usually goes away temporarily by holding your breath or by pressing on the painful area of your chest.

Pericarditis

Pericarditis is swelling and irritation of the thin, saclike tissue surrounding your heart. The main symptom is sharp chest pain that gets worse when you cough, lie down or take a deep breath.

Chest wall pain

Chest wall pain is a type of muscle pain. Bruised chest muscles may happen from a lot of coughing, straining or a minor injury. One type of chest wall pain is costochondritis. Symptoms include pain and tenderness in and around the area that connects the ribs to the breastbone.

If gently touching the area with your fingers causes chest pain, it's unlikely that a serious condition, such as a heart attack, is the cause.

This article does not include all possible causes of chest pain. Talk to your healthcare professional if you are concerned about chest pain. If you think you're having a heart attack, get emergency medical help.

Treatment

Treatment depends on the specific cause of the chest pain. Some causes of chest pain, such as a heart attack, need emergency treatment. Chest pain symptoms from other causes, such as pericarditis, may go away without treatment.

When to call your doctor

Chest pain is a common reason that people seek medical treatment. It can be difficult to tell if chest pain is due to a heart attack or other health condition, especially if you've never had chest pain before. Don't try to diagnose the cause yourself.

Call your healthcare professional if you have new or unexplained chest pain. If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency number.

Last Updated: May 8th, 2024