Heart Attack: Care Instructions

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Coronary artery disease

Your Care Instructions

A heart attack (myocardial infarction, or MI) occurs when one or more of the coronary arteries, which supply the heart with oxygen-rich blood, is blocked. A blockage usually occurs when plaque inside the artery breaks open and a blood clot forms in the artery.

After a heart attack, you may be worried about your future. Over the next several weeks, your heart will start to heal. Although it is sometimes hard to break old habits, you can prevent another heart attack by making some lifestyle changes and by taking medicines. You may use the following information for ideas about what to do at home to speed your recovery.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor or nurse call line if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?


  • Until your doctor says it is okay, do not do strenuous exercise. And do not lift, pull, or push anything heavy. Ask your doctor what types of activities are safe for you.
  • If your doctor has not set you up with a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program, talk to him or her about whether that is right for you. Cardiac rehab includes supervised exercise. It also includes help with diet and lifestyle changes, and emotional support. It may reduce your risk of future heart problems.
  • Increase your activities slowly. Take short rest breaks when you get tired.
  • If your doctor recommends it, get more exercise. Walking is a good choice. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk every day. Try for at least 2½ hours of exercise a week. You also may want to swim, bike, or do other activities. Talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program to make sure it is safe for you.
  • Ask your doctor when you can drive, go back to work, and do other daily activities again.
  • You can have sex as soon as you feel ready for it. Often this means when you can easily walk around or climb stairs. Talk with your doctor if you have any concerns. If you are taking nitroglycerin, do not take erection-enhancing medicine such as sildenafil (Viagra), tadalafil (Cialis), or vardenafil (Levitra).

Lifestyle changes

  • Do not smoke. Smoking increases your risk of another heart attack. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and salt, and is full of fruits, vegetables and whole-grains. Eat at least two servings of fish each week. You may get more details about how to eat healthy. But these tips can help you get started.
  • Stay at a healthy weight or lose weight if you need to.


  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor or nurse call line if you think you are having a problem with your medicine. You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes. Do not stop taking your medicine unless your doctor tells you to. Not taking your medicine might raise your risk of having another heart attack.
  • You may need several medicines to help lower your risk of another heart attack. These include:
    • Blood pressure medicines such as angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors, ARBs (angiotensin II receptor blockers), and beta-blockers.
    • Cholesterol medicines called statins.
    • Aspirin and other blood thinners. These prevent blood clots that can cause a heart attack.
  • If your doctor has given you nitroglycerin, keep it with you at all times. If you have angina symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure, sit down and rest, and take the first dose of nitroglycerin as directed. If symptoms get worse or are not getting better within 5 minutes, call 911 immediately. Stay on the phone with the emergency operator; he or she will give you further instructions.
  • Do not take any over-the-counter medicines or natural health products without talking to your doctor first.

Staying healthy

  • Manage other health conditions such as high blood pressure and diabetes.
  • Avoid colds and flu. Get a pneumococcal vaccine shot. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need a second dose. Get the flu vaccine every fall. If you must be around people with colds or flu, wash your hands often.
  • Be sure to tell your doctor about any angina symptoms you have had, even if they went away. Pay attention to your angina symptoms. Know what is typical for you and learn how to control it. Know when to call for help.
  • Talk to your family, friends, or a counsellor about your feelings. It is normal to feel frightened, angry, hopeless, helpless, and even guilty. Talking openly about bad feelings can help you cope. If you have symptoms of depression, talk to your doctor.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You have symptoms of a heart attack. These may include:
    • Chest pain or pressure, or a strange feeling in the chest.
    • Sweating.
    • Shortness of breath.
    • Nausea or vomiting.
    • Pain, pressure, or a strange feeling in the back, neck, jaw, or upper belly or in one or both shoulders or arms.
    • Light-headedness or sudden weakness.
    • A fast or irregular heartbeat.
    After you call 911, the operator may tell you to chew 1 adult-strength or 2 to 4 low-dose aspirin. Wait for an ambulance. Do not try to drive yourself.
  • You have angina symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure, that do not go away with rest or are not getting better within 5 minutes after you take a dose of nitroglycerin.
  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You feel like you are having another heart attack.

Call your doctor or nurse call line now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You are having angina symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure, more often than usual, or they are different or worse than usual.
  • You have new or increased shortness of breath.
  • You are dizzy or light-headed, or you feel like you may faint.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse call line if you have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

Go to https://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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