Top 4 Heart Attack Signs in Women

Women may not recognize these other symptoms as signs of a heart attack.

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You might think of a heart attack as a “man’s problem,” but more than 53,000 women in the United States die of heart attacks each year. Heart attacks occur when the flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle is blocked. If the blockage isn’t treated quickly, heart muscle begins to die, and healthy tissue is replaced with scar tissue. Unfortunately, women having heart attacks often hesitate to seek help, which can be fatal or result in more serious or lasting problems.

Unfortunately, research suggests that women wait longer than men to seek medical care for a heart-related event, according to a December 2018 study published in European Heart Journal: Acute Cardiovascular Care.

The study involved almost 4,400 men and women who were treated for a heart attack between 2000 and 2016. On average, women having a heart attack waited 37 minutes longer than men to call an ambulance.  One reason for this discrepancy may be that women downplay their symptoms or just don’t realize they need urgent medical attention. The researchers pointed out that women having a heart attack are less likely than men to have “classic” warning signs, like chest pain. They also tend to experience lesser-known heart attack symptoms, such as shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, fatigue or breaking out into a cold sweat, which could be confused with another condition, such as the flu or heartburn or indigestion.  

Every second is important when you're having a heart attack. Delays in treatment increase the risk for worse outcomes, according to the American College of Cardiology. Don't ignore these five heart attack signs in women.

Medically reviewed in November 2019.

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Unusual fatigue

We all get tired from time to time, but if your exhaustion has no discernable cause, or happens alongside other worrisome symptoms, it could signal a problem with your heart. Most women—about 90 percent—don't know fatigue can be a heart attack symptom, and many don’t get help when they need it, according to the American Heart Association.  

Don’t ignore the following warning signs:

  • You become fatigued very suddenly
  • You feel extremely tired during activities that wouldn't normally wear you out
  • You haven't exerted yourself but you still feel exhausted

A heart attack might affect your breathing, too. Feeling a bit winded can be normal after a workout or other physical activity, but if you're struggling for air and haven't gotten off the couch, take note. Shortness of breath, or dyspnea, is a common symptom of heart attack in women.

If you feel unusually tired for no reason or if exhaustion is accompanied by nausea, sudden dizziness or cold sweats, see medical attention right away. Seek immediate treatment also if you're gasping for air for no good reason.

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Indigestion and heartburn

Heart attack symptoms can be mistaken for even mild heartburn or indigestion. When stomach acid backs up in your esophagus, you might experience a burning sensation in your chest and throat, also known as heartburn. Indigestion describes a group of symptoms including abdominal pain or burning and fullness shortly after eating. 

If your heartburn or indigestion doesn’t go away on its own or it's accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating, get checked out. This is particularly important if you have a burning sensation in your chest or throat but you haven’t had anything to eat or drink and you haven’t taken any medication that could cause heartburn.

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Pain in the neck, jaw, arms, stomach or back

Along with chest pain, pain in the left arm is a classic and well-known heart attack symptom. What you may not realize is that pain from a heart attack can radiate throughout the upper body and spread to the neck, jaw, shoulders, either or both arms, stomach or back.

These symptoms can be subtle and confusing at times, and may feel like pressure or squeezing in the upper parts of your body. This tightness may or may not happen with other symptoms, like dizziness, lightheadedness or shortness of breath.

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Nausea and vomiting

Nausea (and vomiting) are among the common symptoms of a heart attack, particularly among women. Unfortunately, nausea can signal some other conditions, including the stomach flu, food poisoning or a food allergy, which could prevent women from seeking help right away.

Don’t delay emergency medical care if your nausea or vomiting occur with other heart attack warning signs, like chest or arm pain, fatigue or shortness of breath.

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What to do

If you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 right away—don't drive yourself to the hospital. The operator may advise you to chew aspirin if you’re not allergic while you wait for help to arrive. Calling for help is almost always the fastest way to get the treatment you need, since the emergency medical team can begin treatment as soon as they arrive, up to an hour sooner in some cases than if you got to the hospital by car. Medical professionals are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. 

Every minute counts when you're having a cardiac event, and getting treatment within 90 minutes of a heart attack can increase your chances of a full recovery. 

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Take steps to reduce your risk

You can't control all of your heart attack risk factors—like race, age and family history—but there are some ways to reduce your odds of a cardiac event.

Protect your heart by:

  • Scheduling routine appointments to assess your heart-related risks and have your blood pressure and cholesterol monitored
  • Not smoking, which can cut your heart disease risk in half 
  • Getting active—even small amounts of exercise can add up and provide health benefits
  • Eating a heart-healthy diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains and lean protein 

Your healthcare provider can help identify ways to get your heart health in check. If you've put off seeing your doctor, make an appointment and get on the right track to better heart health.

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