Most of us would associate heart attacks with men, surprisingly, heart disease is the number one cause of death among women in Western countries. A heart attack is caused by clogs in the arteries that supply blood to the heart. Clogs can happen because of a buildup of cholesterol, fat, or plaque. When the clog becomes too big, the heart can no longer receive oxygen from the blood and heart attack occurs.
If you watch tv or movies, you probably have a good idea of what a heart attack looks like. A man suddenly feels a sharp pain in his chest, clutches at his left arm, and topples over. But when it comes to heart attacks in women, the symptoms can be much harder to spot.
In fact, many of the symptoms of a heart attack in women are so subtle that they are often ignored or mistaken for conditions like acid reflux or an infection. But if you or a woman you know are at risk for heart disease, knowing what these symptoms look like could save a life.
1. Pain, Pressure, Discomfort, or Tightness in Chest
Though women can have the “elephant sitting on my chest” feeling that men commonly experience during a heart attack, usually the discomfort in the chest is more like a pressure or squeezing. It will last for several minutes at a time, or go away and return frequently, and can happen anywhere in the chest, not just on the left side.
2. Pain in Arms, Back, Neck, Jaw, or Stomach
During a heart attack, women often feel pain in several places, not just in the left arm. It can radiate through both arms, along the back and neck, and up into the jaw. Many women also experience severe stomach pain or a feeling like heartburn.
3. Shortness of Breath
Sudden difficulty breathing or gasping are common for women during heart attacks, and it will happen without any apparent cause. It may be accompanied by chest pain, but not always.
4. Weakness, Lightheadedness, or Fatigue
Many women having a heart attack feel suddenly weak or exhausted for no obvious reason. Some may experience lightheadedness severe enough to lead to fainting.
5. Clamminess, Nausea or Extreme Sweating
Many women who feel weak or lightheaded during a heart attack will also experience chills, sweating, or clammy skin. This may be accompanied by nausea and, in some instances, vomiting.
6. Dry, Persistent Cough
Some women experience a dry cough that comes on for no reason and lingers. Coughing can happen with or without chest pain.
7. Numbness or Blue color in Lips, Hands, or Feet
In addition to other symptoms, many women also notice blueness, numbness, or a sensation of “pins and needles” in parts of the body.
Women & Chest Pain
Most women having a heart attack will experience several, but not all, of these symptoms. Though chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack, nearly 40% of women do not have chest pain during their heart attack. That means that if you experience several of the above symptoms, but do not feel any pain or tightness in your chest, you may still be having a heart attack.
Many women will also have some symptoms — such as sudden fatigue, pain, trouble sleeping, or shortness of breath — weeks or even months before their attack. It is also common to feel an unexplained sense of anxiety or doom in the weeks or days leading up to a cardiac event. Be aware of any unusual sensations in your body, and discuss them with a doctor quickly if they happen more than once.
What to Do During a Heart Attack
If you think you are having a heart attack, call your local emergency number immediately and say “I think I’m having a heart attack.”
While waiting for the ambulance, chew on one uncoated, full-strength aspirin tablet (unless you have an aspirin allergy).
Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital.