A heart attack is a fatal event caused by the interruption of blood flow to the heart. Knowing a woman’s specific symptoms of a heart attack can help a person get medical help quickly, which can save their life.
Women are less likely to survive their first heart attack than men. This may be because the symptoms differ between the sexes. Women are more likely to have a “silent” heart attack or display unusual symptoms.
Additionally, female biology creates unique risk factors for a heart attack because certain diseases that increase risk, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), are not present in male biology.
Heart attack symptoms in women
Chest pain is a common symptom of a heart attack. Many people expect a sudden heart attack. But research shows that women experience symptoms for several weeks before a heart attack.
According to a 2003 study of 515 women with a heart attack, 80 per cent of women had at least one symptom at least 4 weeks before a heart attack.
Symptoms can be persistent or they can come and go and can even interfere with sleep. A woman experiencing any of these symptoms should seek help immediately, as a heart attack can be fatal, whether the symptoms are mild or severe.
Eight symptoms of a heart attack:
The most common symptom of a heart attack in both men and women is chest pain or discomfort.
It can be described as:
However, women can have a heart attack without chest discomfort.
In a 2003 study, 29.7 per cent of the women surveyed experienced chest discomfort in the weeks leading up to the attack. Additionally, 57 per cent had chest pain during a heart attack.
Excessive or abnormal fatigue
Abnormal fatigue is often reported in the weeks leading up to a heart attack. Fatigue is also experienced before the event. Even simple activities that don’t require a lot of effort can cause feelings of exhaustion.
Feeling weak or agitated is a common heart attack symptom in women.
This weakness may be accompanied by:
- Feeling lightheaded
Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath or heavy breathing without exertion, especially when accompanied by fatigue or chest pain, may suggest heart problems.
Some women may feel short of breath when lying down, with the symptom easing when they are sitting upright.
Excessive sweating without a normal cause is another common heart attack symptom in women.
Feeling cold and clammy can also be an indicator of heart problems.
Upper body pain
This is usually non-specific and cannot be attributed to a particular muscle or joint in the upper body.
Areas that can be affected include:
- Upper back or either arm
The pain can start in one area and gradually spread to others, or it may come on suddenly.
Almost half of women in the 2003 study reported issues with sleep in the weeks before they had a heart attack.
These disturbances may involve:
- Difficulty getting to sleep.
- Unusual waking throughout the night.
- Feeling tired despite getting enough sleep.
Some women may feel pain or pressure in the stomach before a heart attack.
Other digestive issues associated with a possible heart attack can include:
Heart attack post-menopause
The risk of heart attack increases due to falling estrogen levels after menopause.
Post-menopause heart attack symptoms include:
- Pain in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.
- Irregular heartbeat
- Severe chest pain
- Sweating without activity
Risk factors for heart attack in women
Risk factors for a heart attack in women include:
- Age: Those aged 55 years or older are at greater risk of a heart attack. This may be because hormones provide some protection from heart disease before menopause.
- Family history: Those with a male relative who had a heart attack by the age of 55 years old, or a female relative who has had one by 65 years of age, are considered to have a family history of heart attack and are at increased risk.
- Health status: Certain markers, such as high blood pressure and high cholesterol, increases the risk of a heart attack in both males and females.
- Medical conditions: Those with conditions, including diabetes, obesity, and autoimmune disorders are more likely to have a heart attack. Diseases such as endometriosis, PCOS, or a history of preeclampsia during pregnancy also increase risk.