Are heart attack symptoms in women different than heart attack symptoms in men? In some cases, yes. While many men have the kind of symptoms you usually see in the movies — like crushing chest pain or arm pain — women’s symptoms can be much more subtle and harder to detect.
The most common women’s heart attack symptom is chest pain, but some women have other, more mild symptoms, like fatigue, shortness of breath, jaw pain, or dizziness.
Unfortunately, these milder symptoms are not always recognized. Because heart disease is the leading cause of death among women in the United States, it’s important to understand what puts you at risk, how women’s heart attack symptoms are different, and when to get help.
How Heart Disease Uniquely Affects Women
Often the diagnosis of “heart disease” is used to describe coronary heart disease, which occurs when a hard substance called “plaque” builds up inside your coronary arteries, or the blood vessels that bring oxygen-rich blood and other nutrients to your heart.
Plaque is a hard substance made up of cholesterol and other deposits. As plaque builds, your arteries become narrow, making it harder for blood to flow through. In some cases, arteries can become completely blocked.
If your heart can’t get the oxygen and nutrients it needs, a heart attack can occur. According to the American College of Cardiology, about 8 million American women have a history of heart attack or angina, which is chest pain caused by a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle.
Women’s Risk Factors for Heart Disease
In many cases, heart disease can be prevented or successfully treated if caught early, but it’s important to understand what puts you at risk for heart disease in the first place. You may be at risk if you:
- Are over age 55
- Are African-American
- Have a parent, brother, or sister who had a heart attack
- Do not get regular exercise
- Are overweight
- Have another medical condition like:
- Have gone through menopause
- Had pregnancy-related high blood pressure, diabetes, or preeclampsia.
5 Critical Heart Attack Symptoms in Women
While some women have classic signs like chest pain, women’s heart attack symptoms can also be mild and can include:
- Chest pain or pressure that comes and goes
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Pain in your jaw, arm, or back
What to Do If You Have Symptoms
A heart attack is a medical emergency that can be deadly if left untreated. If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack:
- Call 911 right away.
- Do not drive yourself to the hospital or have someone drive you. Remember, paramedics can provide the fastest, safest way to the hospital.
- Even if you’re unsure, it’s always better to get checked out than to ignore a potentially deadly health problem.
The Magee-Womens Heart Program, part of the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute, provides specialized care for the diagnosis, treatment, and prevention of heart disease in women. To learn more, call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).