Harvard Health Letter

Does aspirin stop a heart attack?

Ask the doctor

Q. Should I take aspirin if I think Iím having a heart attack, and what kind of aspirin should I take?

A. First, what symptoms indicate you might be having a heart attack? The main symptom is a squeezing, tight sensation in the middle of the chest that can travel up into the jaw and shoulders, and even down the left arm. Along with the pain you may begin to sweat and to feel weak, like you might pass out, and be short of breath. While other conditions besides a heart at-tack can cause similar symptoms, you need to take such symptoms very seriously. First, call 911.

Then, take an aspirin. It may sound ridiculous that, in the face of a potentially life-threatening event, weíre advising you to ďtake an aspirin.Ē But it is well established that this step can keep an impending heart attack from occurring. Even if you take a baby aspirin every day to reduce your risk of heart attack, take another now! (This advice all assumes that you do not have an allergy to aspirin, and that your doctor has not advised you against using aspirin because, for example, you are at risk for bleeding.)

What kind of aspirin? Take a regular-strength (325-mg) aspirin pill that is not enteric-coated. Donít swallow it; chew it, and then swallow it with a glass of water. Doing it that way gets the aspirin into your system rapidly, which is what you want. In an impending heart attack, a blood clot is forming in one of your heartís arteries, blocking the blood supply to a part of your heart. Aspirin can help dissolve the clot before thereís permanent damage to the heart.

If it turns out that your symptoms were not caused by an impending heart attack after all, thatís fine; chewing the one aspirin pill wonít hurt. And it could save your life.

ó Anthony Komaroff, MD

Editor in Chief, Harvard Health Letter

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