While sharp chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, women may experience less obvious symptoms, leading many to dismiss them as signs of less serious ailments.
Know the signs
Heart attack symptoms may occur during normal daily activities or times of stress and may include:
- Sharp, severe chest pain
- Chest pain that lasts longer than 10 minutes
However, in women, some signs may be subtler:
- Chest or upper back pressure, squeezing or pain that lasts for a few minutes or comes and goes
- Pain in your jaw, arm, neck, stomach or back
- Sudden or unexplained shortness of breath — this may happen without any chest discomfort
- Sleep problems, unusual fatigue and lack of energy
- Abdominal pain
- Breaking out in a cold sweat
- Dizziness or light-headedness1, 2, 3, 4
Don’t wait — call 911
Because the symptoms may often be mistaken for something less serious, women experiencing them frequently dismiss the symptoms as belonging to common ailments like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging,3 delaying calling for help. If you have any of the symptoms listed above, do not wait, and do not drive yourself to the hospital — call 911 right away.
Why symptoms may be different in women
Research is ongoing as to why men and women experience heart attacks differently, but it could stem from heart disease; in men, heart disease usually occurs from blockages in coronary arteries while in women, heart disease or damage may develop in the tiny arteries that branch out from the coronary arteries. Angina symptoms may be due to spasms within these small blood vessels. Called microvascular disease (MVD), this may occur more often in younger women.2, 3
See your doctor
Heart disease often develops when fatty substances (“plaque”) build up in the coronary arteries. These narrowed arteries slow or cut off blood flow, temporarily limiting oxygen to the heart muscle.1 Your doctor may diagnose heart disease based on a combination of your medical history, physical exam and test results.
Standard tests, which are designed to assess blockages in the heart’s larger vessels, often won’t spot MVD or broken heart syndrome,5 another heart condition that mainly affects women, however. More research is needed to find the best ways to diagnose heart disease in women.1, 6
Protect your heart
Taking care of your heart can help reduce your risks of a heart attack. Avoiding smoking, maintaining a healthy weight and increasing your activity level all can help.
Talk to your doctor about steps you can take to reduce risks such as high blood pressure or cholesterol.7 If you need any high blood pressure or cholesterol medications, your doctor and Health Mart® pharmacist can work together to make sure you reap the most benefits with the fewest side effects.