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First aid

Chest pain

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First Aid - Shock
First Aid - Shock

  • Uncomfortable pressure, fullness, squeezing, or other pain in the chest
  • This includes the area from the clavicles to the bottom of the rib cage

General Information

  • Not all chest pain is serious, but until your doctor has examined you it is always safer to assume that your chest pain is serious.
  • The most life-threatening cause of chest pain is a heart attack. Other serious causes include angina, pneumonia, lung blood clots, or a collapsed lung.
  • Some common causes of chest pain are not serious  (e.g., muscle strain, chest wall arthritis, and acid reflux).

Heart Attack Warning Symptoms

  • Chest pain or discomfort. The typical heart attack pain is located in the center of the chest and lasts more than a few minutes. Usually the discomfort feels like pressure, squeezing, or heaviness.
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body. Some people who have heart attack have pain or discomfort in the upper arms, jaw, neck, or upper back.
  • Shortness of breath. Shortness of breath can sometimes occur.
  • Other symptoms. Other symptoms that can occur include unusual sweating, nausea, and lightheadedness.

If you think that you are having a heart attack, then you should call 911 (an ambulance) immediately!

When to Call Your Doctor

Call 911 Now (you may need an ambulance) If
  • Passed out (fainted)
  • Very weak (can't stand)
  • Visible sweat on face or sweat is dripping down face
  • Severe difficulty breathing (e.g., struggling for each breath, unable to speak)
  • Lips or face are blue
  • Severe chest pain
  • Chest pain lasting longer than 5 minutes and any of the following:
    • Pain is crushing, pressure-like, or heavy
    • History of heart disease (e.g., angina, heart attack, bypass surgery, angioplasty)
    • Over 50 years old
    • Over 30 years old and you have at least one cardiac risk factor (i.e. high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, smoker or strong family history of heart disease)
    • Took nitroglycerin and was not relieved
Call Your Doctor Now (night or day) If
  • You feel weak or very sick
  • Chest pain lasts more than 5 minutes
  • Chest pain brought on by exertion and relieved by rest
  • Chest pain spreads into your shoulder, arm, or jaw
  • You have angina chest pain and it has been increasing in severity or frequency
  • Difficulty breathing or taking a breath makes pain worse
  • Coughing up blood
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness, or weakness
  • Heart beating irregularly or very rapidly
  • Fever
  • Major surgery in the past month
  • Any prior "blood clot" in leg or lungs (Note: typically would have required treatment with a blood thinner such as heparin or coumadin)
  • Hip or leg fracture in past two months
  • Recent illness requiring prolonged bed rest within last month
  • Recent long distance travel with prolonged time in car, bus, plane, or train (i.e. several hours sitting in one spot) within last month
  • Drug abuse
Call Your Doctor Within 24 Hours (between 9 am and 4 pm) If
  • You think you need to be seen
  • Rash in same area as pain (especially if described as "small blisters")
Call Your Doctor During Weekday Office Hours If
  • You have other questions or concerns
  • Intermittent mild chest pain lasting a few seconds each time, and persists for more than 3 days
  • Chest pain only when coughing and persists for more than 3 days
Self Care at Home If
  • Intermittent mild chest pain lasting a few seconds each time, and you don't think you need to be seen
  • Mild chest pain only when coughing, and you don't think you need to be seen

Home Care Advice for Mild Chest Pain
  1. Fleeting Chest Pain: Fleeting chest pains that last only a few seconds and then go away are generally not serious. They may be from pinched muscles or nerves in your chest wall.
  2. Chest Pain Only When Coughing: Chest pains that occur with coughing generally come from the chest wall and from irritation of the airways. They are usually not serious.
  3. Cough Suppression Medications: The most common cough suppressant in over-the-counter cough medications is dextromethorphan. An example is Robitussin DM. You should not try to suppress coughs that produce mucus and phlegm. Dextromethorphan is best used in the late stages of a respiratory infection when the cough is dry and hacking.
  4. Expected Course: These mild chest pains usually disappear within 3 days.
  5. Call Your Doctor If:
    • Severe chest pain
    • Constant chest pain lasting longer than 5 minutes
    • Difficulty breathing
    • Fever
    • You become worse
Additional Internet Resources
  1. Heart Attack Symptoms and Warning Signs:
  2. Women and Heart Disease:

And remember, contact your doctor if you develop any of the "Call Your Doctor" symptoms.

Disclaimer: This information is not intended be a substitute for professional medical advice. It is provided for educational purposes only. You assume full responsibility for how you choose to use this information.

Author and Senior Reviewer: David A. Thompson, M.D.

Last Reviewed: 1/19/2009

Last Revised: 4/5/2008

Content Set: Adult HouseCalls Online

Portions Copyright 2000-2009 Self Care Decisions LLC; Copyright LMS, Inc.

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