The number one killer of women in the United States is Myocardial Infraction (MI), better known as, a heart attack. Everyone should be educated about this disease so we can better protect our loved ones. Due to atypical symptoms in women, it is critical to know the signs of a heart attack as it could be the difference between life and death. The signs are subtle but the consequences deadly if not acted upon quickly. Women especially, tend to ignore the warning signs often chalking symptoms up to other illnesses such as: the flu, acid reflux or as part of the normal aging process. This could be because most are busy caring for others or because many women do not recognize that their symptoms could in fact be a heart attack. With so many competing priorities women will keep moving and hope that the symptoms will go away. Many will self-medicate with various pain medications to alleviate symptoms; instead of taking that route, seek medical attention. The key is to get help quickly to prevent permanent damage to the heart.
A heart attack is one of the most terrifying things that can happen to anyone. In fact, many people don’t even know they’re having one until after it’s already happened—and by then, it might be too late to save them. If you think you or someone else might be at risk of having a heart attack, pay close attention to these warning signs of a heart attack so you know when to get help immediately.
Here is what you should know. The most common signs of a heart attack is pain or discomfort in the chest and upper body. Women can have what is known as a silent heart attack which produces no obvious symptoms. Medical professionals discover silent heart attacks by using an EKG; undetected, symptoms could go on for days, weeks or months.
Silent Heart Attack
Silent heart attacks are more likely to happen in women under the age of 65. Younger women who experience a silent heart attack are more likely to die compared to young men who may have a silent heart attack. Silent heart attacks are most common in women who have diabetes. Diabetes alters the way women feel pain making them less likely to notice the symptoms of a heart attack.
Symptoms of Heart Attacks in Women
The symptoms of a heart attack in women often present themselves differently than how they appear in men. It may look and feel different than their male counterparts. These are the symptoms that are more common among women:
Dizziness and lightheadedness
If you feel like you’re going to faint, that’s reason enough to head for help. Feeling faint is one of the most common warning signs of a heart attack, because it can be hard to breathe when your heart isn’t pumping efficiently. If you experience these feelings, place your arm on something stable (like a table or chair) so that you can steady yourself while waiting for medical assistance. You should also sit down if possible. You may want to call 911 if you feel very lightheaded and dizzy—especially if those symptoms are accompanied by chest pain or discomfort. This could mean that you’re having a heart attack. Women sometimes delay seeking treatment for heart attacks due to false alarms from their bodies; don’t let fear of false alarms prevent you from seeking help in an emergency situation! Be aware of your body, trust your instincts, and don’t delay getting care if you think something might be wrong. And remember: It's always better to seek treatment right away than to wait until later when things could get worse.
Pain in the back, neck, jaw or throat
When you’re having a heart attack, it’s often felt as an indentation, or an empty feeling in your chest. Pain can be accompanied by shortness of breath and nausea. The Mayo Clinic recommends that women who are experiencing these symptoms call 911. If they experience any other signs that they are having a heart attack, such as vomiting or lightheadedness, then they should call 911 immediately and ask for emergency help. Calling 911 is important because time is critical when treating heart attacks. Also, if women wait too long to seek treatment after first noticing symptoms, there may not be enough blood flow to their hearts to prevent damage. In fact, every minute counts: Every minute without treatment reduces a woman’s chance of survival by 7 percent, according to WomenHeart: The National Coalition for Women with Heart Disease .
Paleness on your face and lips
Paleness on your face and lips might be a sign that you’re having an attack. If you notice this, rest for about five minutes to see if it improves. If it doesn’t, call 911 immediately. The next time you see paleness on your face or lips, have someone check your pulse and blood pressure. If they are elevated, call 911 right away. This could indicate that you are experiencing heart failure. You can also get emergency help by calling 911 even if you don’t experience paleness. If you think something is wrong with your heart, don’t wait—call now!
Nausea and Vomiting (feeling sick to the stomach
If you feel nauseous or vomiting without any other symptoms, it could be something you ate—and probably isn’t a heart attack. If nausea and vomiting comes on suddenly and is paired with other signs like arm or chest pain, shortness of breath, sweating, extreme weakness, and cold sweats it may be time to get yourself to an emergency room fast. These are classic warning signs of a heart attack. Women tend to have different symptoms than men do when they have a heart attack (women more often experience nausea and back pain) so knowing what those are can help save your life. But there are some things all women should know about heart attacks in general: You don’t need to be overweight or obese to have one. In fact, most people who die from sudden cardiac arrest outside of a hospital setting are young and thin; many people assume that if you exercise regularly then it’s unlikely that you will ever have a heart attack – but nothing could be further from the truth.
Problems breathing (shortness of breath)
One of these warning signs is shortness of breath, which can be difficult to describe to someone who has never experienced it. Try taking a few deep breaths and holding them for as long as you can; when you release your breath, how quickly do you get winded? Notice if your heart pounds in your chest or feels like it’s skipping beats. These are all symptoms that could indicate an impending heart attack. If you experience any of these symptoms, call 911 immediately. In fact, even if you don’t have any symptoms but think something might be wrong with your heart, it’s always best to err on the side of caution and contact emergency services right away. It may turn out that nothing is wrong—but even so, a doctor will check out what’s going on with your body and help prevent future problems from developing.
Extreme fatigue (tiredness)
Fatigue is one of the most common symptoms of a heart attack, yet women often dismiss it as being tired. Other early warning signs include shortness of breath, pain in your chest or neck (that feels like an uncomfortable pressure), or pain radiating to your arm, shoulder or jaw. If you have any combination of these symptoms, call 911 immediately—even if they go away. The sooner you’re treated, the better. Women are more likely than men to experience atypical symptoms of a heart attack, so it’s important that we recognize when something isn’t right and get help immediately. The sooner treatment begins, the greater chance there is for recovery and survival.
Because symptoms are can be subtle and different than what men experience, it is important that women talk to their healthcare professional about the signs that pertain specifically to them.
What to do if Heart Attack Symptoms Occur
If you or someone else experiences a heart attack, call 911 immediately. Getting treatment quickly is imperative! Do not attempt to drive yourself to the hospital call the ambulance. Reason being, you may require immediate medical assistance in route. With this type of emergency, getting clogged arteries open within the first hour is key to a successful outcome.
You are your best advocate; if you think you’re having a heart attack get emergency help right away. Don’t let anyone convince you otherwise. Know the symptoms of a heart attack and seek medical attention to determine whether you are having one.
Heart Attack Risk Factors You Can’t Control
There are a few factors that are beyond control such as, aging and menopause. Estrogen gives women protection against heart disease by keeping the walls of the arteries relaxed. As women age and lose estrogen those walls become thicker, more rigid and build up plaque that narrows or blocks blood flow. Race and ethnicity also can’t be controlled. American Indian, Alaskan Native and African American women are more likely to suffer from heart disease; it is still the number one killer of white and African American women.
Elflein, J. (2020, February 10). Cardiovascular disease prevalence U.S. by ethnicity and gender 2013-2016. Retrieved August 23, 2020, from https://www.statista.com/statistics/671131/cardiovascular-disease-prevalence-us-adults-by-ethnicity-and-gender/
Family Health History is a risk factor as well however, it does not mean that you’ll get heart disease, just that you're more susceptible. This is true for those who have family members who have heart disease from high blood pressure, smoking and diabetes. Gestational high blood pressure is brought on during pregnancy; while not hereditary, is another risk factor that can lead to a heart attack later in life.
One way to keep your heart healthy is to get the blood pumping. Incorporate physical activity such as walking, running, hiking, biking into your lifestyle at least 30 minutes per session a few times per week will do wonders for your heart. Before starting any exercise program please consult your doctor. Making unhealthy food choices also contributes to health problems over time. Talk to your doctor or nutritionist who can help you develop a healthy eating plan. Keep your weight in check. Having a healthy weight can lower your risk of heart disease. Ask your doctor to check your blood pressure and cholesterol so you know these important numbers and what you need to do to have a healthy heart.