Better Me

Don’t Drive to the Hospital If You Have a Heart Attack

It’s a Tuesday evening, and you start feeling an uncomfortable tightness in your chest. Your mind races. Is it a bad case of heartburn – or could you be having a heart attack? 

Without a second thought, you grab your car keys and drive to the hospital. But what if there’s a safer and more effective way to respond to a potential heart attack?

Read on as we explore how to recognize the early signs of a heart attack, why driving yourself to the hospital may not be the safest option and what steps you should take instead to ensure you get proper care.

Time is muscle: Early signs of a heart attack

Recognizing the signs of a heart attack early may lead to a more positive outcome.

“Many cardiologists say ‘time is muscle’ because the sooner a heart attack is recognized and treated, the better the chance of limiting heart muscle damage and fully recovering,” said David Wang, MD, a cardiologist with Banner Health.

Many heart attacks won’t appear as they do on TV or in the movies – with a dramatic fall to the ground and hand to the heart in pain. They may start as mild chest pain or discomfort and can differ among men and women

According to Dr. Wang, typical heart attack symptoms may include:

  • Chest discomfort/chest pressure: You may feel pressure, fullness or pain in the center of your chest
  • Radiating pain: Pain may move from your chest to your arms, neck, jaw, back or stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness or dizziness
  • Extreme fatigue or tiredness 

Why driving yourself is not recommended

If you suspect a heart attack, you should never drive yourself or another person to the hospital. Always call 911 immediately.

“It’s dangerous to drive yourself to the hospital as a heart attack can rapidly worsen and impact your ability to stay safe on the road,” Dr. Wang said. “And it can actually delay the time it takes to get medical care.”

Here are reasons you should pick up the phone and call 911 instead:

Get treatment faster

Waiting to get medical attention may lead to increased heart muscle damage and increase the chance that the damage becomes permanent, leading to congestive heart failure. Every minute your organs are deprived of oxygen will increase your risk of long-term effects.

“Emergency responders are trained to start lifesaving treatment on the way to the hospital,” Dr. Wang said. “They can also check for dangerous heart rhythms and cardiac arrest, which needs immediate treatment.”

The hospital has time to prepare

While you’re moving down the road, emergency responders will alert the emergency department, so it is ready for you when you arrive. Without this preparation, you could be forced to wait, prolonging your treatment further.

You could save other lives

If you were to get into an accident, you may make your situation worse and could injure or kill others at the same time. If you are driving someone who is having a heart attack, you may be distracted and pressured to go too fast. 

In short, it’s best to leave emergency care to the professionals.

Steps to follow if you suspect a heart attack

Don’t drive. Call 911 immediately: If you’re driving and begin to experience symptoms of a heart attack, ease off the gas and find an opening in the flow of traffic so you can steer to a safe place. Bring your car to a stop and call 911.

  • Stay calm and rest: Find a comfortable place to sit or lie down.
  • Share your location: Tell the 911 operator where you are. If you’re using a cell phone, they may be able to track your location. It’s also important to give them a description of where you are.
  • Describe your symptoms: Share what symptoms you or the person you are calling about are experiencing. 
  • Take an aspirin: If you have it on hand and aren’t allergic, aspirin can help to thin the blood and reduce the risk of further blood clots.
  • Listen carefully to the 911 operator: Let the operator do the talking and listen carefully to their instructions until emergency responders arrive.

For more tips to help you get the care you need quickly, check out “911 Basics: What to Do Before and After You Call.”


Listening to your body and responding quickly during a heart attack is important. Recognizing the signs and calling 911 (not driving yourself!) may increase your chances of survival.

If you are concerned about your heart health, now is the time to act. Take steps to evaluate your health and decrease your risk. Check out our free heart health risk assessment test and schedule a visit with your health care provider or a Banner Health specialist

For other heart attack-related articles, check out:

Heart Health Emergency Senior Health