What is a heart attack?

A heart attack happens when a blocked artery prevents blood from reaching your heart. Some people, especially women, may have a heart attack without any chest pain or pressure, but may experience chest tightness and aching.
A heart attack happens when a blocked artery prevents blood from reaching your heart. Some people, especially women, may have a heart attack without any chest pain or pressure, but may experience chest tightness and aching.

Most people associate heart attacks with chest pain. Some people, especially women, may have a heart attack without chest pain. It's important to know the other signs of a heart attack. 

A heart attack happens when a blocked artery prevents blood from reaching your heart. The  arteries that supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart can become narrowed. This narrowing is due to atherosclerosis, or the buildup of plaque on and in your artery walls. Plaque is made up of fat, cholesterol, and other substances. 

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the US. About one in five female deaths is due to heart disease.

Symptoms of a heart attack 

About every 43 seconds, someone in the US has a heart attack.

The symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person. Common symptoms in men and women include:

  • Discomfort or pain in the center or left side of your chest. The feeling may last for a few minutes or may go away and return. It can feel like squeezing, pressure, pain, or fullness.
  • Pain or discomfort in your jaw, back, or neck
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both shoulders or arms
  • Shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • Feeling light-headed, faint, or weak
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Women’s heart attack symptoms

For both men and women, the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest discomfort or pain. Some people, especially women, may have a heart attack without any chest pain or pressure.

Researchers found that of 515 women who had heart attacks, only 29.7% said they had chest discomfort. Those who experienced chest symptoms described feeling tightness, aching, or pressure, but not pain. 

Women are more likely to have other heart attack symptoms like back or jaw pain, vomiting and nausea, and shortness of breath.

This information is not widely known. A survey found that while nearly 60% of women knew that chest pain is a heart attack symptom, they were not as aware of other women’s heart attack symptoms, like fatigue and nausea.

Because women tend to report other symptoms, there has sometimes been misdiagnosis or delay in treatment of their heart attack.

There may also be knowledge gaps when it comes to women and heart disease. Experts say that heart-related research studies have often been done with more male participants than females. Only about 34% of participants in cardiovascular research clinical trials are women.

Early warning signs of heart attack in women

Many people believe that a heart attack happens suddenly and intensely. But it’s also possible that your first warning signs may show up hours, days, or weeks before your heart attack.

A study of 515 women found that about 95% had symptoms more than one month before their heart attack. Some of these symptoms include:

Women are also more likely to have silent heart attacks, where there are no symptoms or very mild symptoms.

You may only learn that you had a silent heart attack days or weeks after it happened. A study of 708 heart attack cases showed that more than 25% of heart attacks were only discovered during routine medical check-ups.

What to do if you think you’re having a heart attack

If you think you’re having a heart attack or heart attack symptoms, call for emergency medical help. Don’t ignore or delay it, as every minute counts. Treating a heart attack early can limit or prevent damage to your heart. 

At the hospital, speak up for yourself or bring someone who can advocate for you. Tell the doctor you are concerned about your heart. Describe your symptoms, how long you’ve had them, and your medical history.

How to reduce your risk of heart disease

About 75% of heart disease cases in women can be prevented by making changes to your lifestyle. ‌

Some ways to reduce your heart disease risk include:

  • Eat healthy. Eat foods that are high in fiber. Choose foods that are low in cholesterol, trans fats, and saturated fats. Eat less salt and sugar.
  • Aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise every week. 
  • Stop smoking. Smoking increases your risk for heart disease. 
  • Limit alcohol. Women should have no more than one drink a day.   
  • Learn to cope with stress
  • Check your blood pressure regularly. 
  • Talk to your doctor about having your blood cholesterol checked. If you have too much low-density lipoprotein (LDL) or “bad” cholesterol, you may be at a higher risk for heart disease. 

QUESTION

In the U.S., 1 in every 4 deaths is caused by heart disease. See Answer

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Medically Reviewed on 10/25/2021
References
SOURCES:

American Heart Association: "Cardiovascular Disease: Women's No. 1 Health Threat," "Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest Differences," "Heart Attack Symptoms in Women," "What is a Heart Attack?"

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Heart Attack," "Prevent Heart Disease."

Circulation: "Sex Differences in the Presentation and Perception of Symptoms Among Young Patients With Myocardial Infarction," "Women's Early Warning Symptoms of Acute Myocardial Infarction."

Consumer Reports: "Women More Likely to Survive Heart Attack If Treated by a Female Doctor, Study Shows."

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: "Heart Attack."

The New England Journal of Medicine: "Incidence and Prognosis of Unrecognized Myocardial Infarction — An Update on the Framingham Study."