What's Your Sign? Women's Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attacks occur when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked by a buildup of plaque in coronary arteries. The initial cause is often due to risk factors such as heavy smoking, leading a high-stress lifestyle or being excessively overweight. You may also be at high risk if there is a family history of heart disease. Be aware of the ways that women's heart attack symptoms differ from men's.


Q: What are the common symptoms of heart attack?


They are:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort.
  • Nausea, lightheadedness or breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion.


Q: What are symptoms women may have more often than men?

Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, and back or jaw pain. They may also experience unexplained feelings of anxiety, fatigue or weakness, especially with exertion.


Q: Why do only women have these signs?

Women may have more subtle symptoms than the crushing chest pain most often associated with heart attacks. That's because they tend to have blockages not only in their main arteries, but also in the smaller arteries that supply blood to the heart—a condition called small vessel heart disease or microvascular disease.


Q: What should people do if they experience any of these symptoms?

It's easy to tell yourself it can't be happening to you, but acting quickly cuts down on heart damage. If you or a loved one seems to be having any heart attack signs or symptoms, you should:

  • Dial 911 immediately! Make sure to follow the operator's instructions so you will get help quickly.
  • Try to stay as calm as possible and take deep, slow breaths while waiting for emergency responders.
  • Do not drive yourself or have someone else drive you to the hospital unless you have absolutely no other choice.


Q: What happens to my heart if I don't go to the hospital when I might be experiencing the signs or symptoms of a heart attack?

Many women show up in emergency departments after they've already had much heart damage because their symptoms were not those typically associated with a heart attack. Get checked out even if your symptoms are mild. The longer it takes to get medical care, the greater the risk of permanent damage to the heart muscle. The emergency department staff will determine if it is a heart attack or something non-life-threatening, such as heartburn.


By Marialice Knight, RN, BSN, cardiovascular community nurse