Signs of a heart attack can be different for women

February 24, 2015 Providence Health Team

Breast cancer, ovarian cancer, lung cancer – these are all major health concerns for women. But did you know heart disease kills more women each year than all cancers combined? Heart disease claims the lives of one in three women, killing approximately one woman every minute. Statistics are frightening, but what’s even scarier is that heart attack symptoms in women are often dismissed as the flu or simple aches and pains.

And while Hollywood has perfected the stereotype of a heart attack – a man clutching his arm, doubling over in pain and collapsing to the floor, no two heart attacks are alike. Symptoms for women can differ greatly than those for men. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms and seek help immediately. It could save your life.

Learn to understand the heart attack warning signs for women.

What are the symptoms?

Chest pain is the most common symptom, but heart attack symptoms can manifest differently in women. The following symptoms are often overlooked as the flu or just feeling run down:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in your jaw, arms or neck
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Back pain, often between the shoulder blades
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Stomach pain that is often mistaken for heartburn
  • Fatigue

Not everyone will have all of these symptoms. But, if you feel chest pain or discomfort or more than one of these other symptoms, call 911 immediately. Many women wait too long to go to the emergency room and suffer more damage to their heart muscle than those who get help right away. That’s why it’s important to know the symptoms.

Dos and don’ts of a heart attack

If you suspect you’re having a heart attack:

  • DO call 911 right away.
  • DO try to stay calm until help arrives.
  • DON’T delay getting help – it could cost you your life.
  • DON’T dismiss your symptoms as the flu or stress.
  • DON’T have a friend drive you or try to drive yourself to the hospital.

Unique risk factors for women

The classic risk factors for heart disease include high blood pressure, high cholesterol and obesity, but some are less obvious.

  • Taking birth control pills and smoking increase your risk of heart disease – especially if you’re older than 35. If you’re a smoker, make sure to tell your doctor before going on the pill.
  • Stress and depression affect women’s hearts more than men’s. Staying heart healthy is harder if you’re depressed, so talk to your primary care provider if you feel you feel the symptoms of depression. Learn more about stress and a woman's heart.
  • Family history is an important factor in determining risk – in women and men. If you have a family history of early heart disease, be sure to assess your other risks and talk to your doctor about keeping your heart healthy. This goes for younger women, too.
  • Low estrogen levels after menopause can greatly increase the risk of heart disease in the small blood vessels of the heart.
  • Being inactive poses a greater risk for heart disease for everyone – not just women. Though many risk factors – like family history – can’t be changed, there’s a lot you can do to lower your risk for a heart attack. Contact your Providence primary care provider to assess your overall heart health and talk about ways you can prevent a heart attack.

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