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Women’s Heart Attacks Symptoms Can Differ from Men’s: Know the Signs

Image of Signs and symptoms of a heart attack can differ between women and men. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 quickly. Signs and symptoms of a heart attack can differ between women and men. If you have any of these symptoms, call 911 quickly. (Photo by: The Defense Health Agency)

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When you are having a heart attack, minutes matter. Fast action can save lives.

Heart disease and heart attacks are the number one global killer of both men and women. But women often experience symptoms other than the classic crushing chest pain and left arm pain that typically afflict men having heart attacks.

For example, women are more likely to experience pain between the shoulder blades, abdominal pain, and nausea.

In some situations, a failure to identify the unique symptoms women experience can lead to delays in seeking treatment.

If you're a woman, here are the most common heart attack symptoms:

  • Chest pain or discomfort. This is the most common symptom for both men and women, but some women may experience a sense of squeezing or fullness, and the pain can be anywhere in the chest, not just on the left side.
  • Pain in the arm(s), back, neck, or jaw. This type of pain is more common in women than in men. The pain can be gradual or sudden, and it may increase or decrease before becoming intense.
  • Stomach pain. This is a signal of a heart attack that is often mistaken for heartburn, indigestion or a stomach ulcer. Other times, women experience severe abdominal pressure. This is where it's best to be on the safe side and call 911.
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, or lightheadedness. If you're having trouble breathing for no apparent reason, you could be having a heart attack, especially if you're also having one or more symptoms. More women than men experience this aspect of a heart attack.
  • Cold sweat. This is another heart attack symptom more common in women having a heart attack. It may feel like stress-related sweating.
  • Fatigue. Some women who have heart attacks feel extremely tired, even if they haven't moved much. You may feel the tiredness in your chest.

How Long Can a Woman Have Symptoms Before a Heart Attack?

Many people expect a heart attack to come on suddenly. But research suggests that women experience symptoms for several weeks before a heart attack. Doctors say it's important to encourage women to seek medical care when they have symptoms.

"Despite women have more symptomatic chest pain than men, they are less likely to have timely and appropriate care," said Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Travis Batts, medical director of cardiology at Wilford Hall, Lackland Air Force Base, San Antonio, Texas.

He pointed to the 2021 guidelines on chest pain.

Also, keep in mind you can have heart problems -- even a heart attack -- without chest pain. That's particularly common among women.

Call 911 – Quickly

  • Call 911 immediately if you experience heart attack warning signs. Calling 911 is almost always the fastest way to get life-saving treatment and preserve your heart muscle and tissues.
  • An emergency medical services team can begin treatment when they arrive – up to an hour sooner than if you get to the hospital by car. EMS staff are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped.
  • Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital, too.

Should I Take Aspirin During a Heart Attack?

Medical advice on taking aspirin has changed over the years when it comes to treating an initial heart attack or preventing a subsequent heart attack.

  • Don't do anything before calling 911. Specifically, don't take an aspirin then wait for it to relieve your pain. Aspirin alone won't treat your heart attack.
  • The emergency operator can advise you whether to take aspirin and how much to take.
  • If the operator does not suggest aspirin, you may receive the drug in the ambulance or emergency department.

Heart Attacks Can Happen Even if You're Young and in Good Shape

Younger women are having more heart attacks, according to a National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute study in 2019.

Researchers were surprised to find that while the heart attack rate has decreased among older adults, it's risen among those ages 35-54, especially women. The study reviewed more than 28,000 hospitalizations for heart attacks in four cities.

One condition, spontaneous coronary artery dissection, or SCAD, causes a small percentage of heart attacks overall, but is responsible for 40% of heart attacks in women younger than age 50, according to 2020 research from the American College of Cardiology. The average SCAD patient is just 42 years old and is likely healthy and active.

The Bottom Line

"As our approach to the diagnosis and management of chest pain syndromes continues to evolve, we must highlight the impact of racial and ethnic disparities on the evaluation of patients with chest pain," Batts said. "There are disparities in chest pain management in diverse populations that lead to worse outcomes, increased heart attacks, and higher death rates."

His bottom line recommendations? "For both women and men alike, the keys to improving your heart health are simple: Take all symptoms seriously, ask questions about your heart health, and get screened yearly for heart disease risk factors."

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