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Acute coronary syndrome

Acute coronary syndrome is a term used for any condition brought on by sudden, reduced blood flow to the heart. Acute coronary syndrome symptoms may include the type of chest pressure that you feel during a heart attack, or pressure in your chest while you're at rest or doing light physical activity (unstable angina). The first sign of acute coronary syndrome can be sudden stopping of your heart (cardiac arrest). Acute coronary syndrome is often diagnosed in an emergency room or hospital.

Acute coronary syndrome is treatable if diagnosed quickly. Acute coronary syndrome treatments vary, depending on your signs, symptoms and overall health condition.

Symptoms Causes Risk factors Prevention

Acute coronary syndrome symptoms are the same as those of a heart attack. And if acute coronary syndrome isn't treated quickly, a heart attack will occur. It's important to take acute coronary syndrome symptoms very seriously as this is a life-threatening condition. Call 911 or your local emergency number right away if you have these signs and symptoms and think you're having a heart attack:

  • Chest pain (angina) that feels like burning, pressure or tightness
  • Pain elsewhere in the body, such as the left upper arm or jaw (referred pain)
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Shortness of breath (dyspnea)
  • Sudden, heavy sweating (diaphoresis)

If you're having a heart attack, the signs and symptoms may vary depending on your sex, age and whether you have an underlying medical condition, such as diabetes.

Some additional heart attack symptoms include:

  • Abdominal pain
  • Pain similar to heartburn
  • Clammy skin
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness or fainting
  • Unusual or unexplained fatigue
  • Feeling restless or apprehensive

When to see a doctor

If you're having chest pain and you believe it's an emergency situation, call 911 or your local emergency number immediately. Whenever possible, get emergency medical assistance rather than driving yourself to the hospital. You could be having a heart attack.

If you have recurring chest pain, talk to your doctor. It could be a form of angina, and your doctor can help you choose the best treatment. Stable angina occurs predictably. For example, if you jog, you may experience chest pain that goes away when you rest. In unstable angina, chest pain isn't predictable and often occurs at rest. It may also be more intense pain than stable angina.

Acute coronary syndrome is most often a complication of plaque buildup in the arteries in your heart (coronary atherosclerosis) These plaques, made up of fatty deposits, cause the arteries to narrow and make it more difficult for blood to flow through them.

Eventually, this buildup means that your heart can't pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the rest of your body, causing chest pain (angina) or a heart attack. Most cases of acute coronary syndrome occur when the surface of the plaque buildup in your heart arteries ruptures and causes a blood clot to form. The combination of the plaque buildup and the blood clot dramatically limits the amount of blood flowing to your heart muscle. If the blood flow is severely limited, a heart attack will occur.

The risk factors for acute coronary syndrome are similar to those for other types of heart disease. Acute coronary syndrome risk factors include:

  • Older age (older than 45 for men and older than 55 for women)
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Type 2 diabetes
  • Family history of chest pain, heart disease or stroke. For women, a history of high blood pressure, preeclampsia or diabetes during pregnancy

The same lifestyle changes that help reduce the symptoms of acute coronary syndrome also can help prevent it from happening in the first place. Eat a healthy diet, exercise most days of the week for at least 30 minutes each day, see your doctor regularly for checks of your blood pressure and cholesterol levels, and don't smoke.

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