When a heart attack occurs, symptoms don’t always feel the same for women as they do for men. Unlike the movies, there isn’t always a ‘clutch your chest’ moment followed by a tumble to the floor. Everyone’s body is different, and not all heart problems come with clear warning signs.
Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the US. It’s important to be aware of the signs of heart disease and how they can differ by gender to make a clear diagnosis so life-saving help can arrive on time.
Warning Signs of a Heart Attack in Women
- Pain, squeezing, fullness or pressure in the center of the chest that lasts longer than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
- Discomfort or flaring pain in one or both arms, the neck, back, stomach, or jaw
- Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing with or without chest discomfort
- Lightheadedness, nausea, or breaking out in a cold sweat
- Unusual or sudden fatigue
The most common sign of a heart attack in both women and men is chest pain or discomfort. It’s vital to pay attention to any sudden pain or tightness in your chest. While you should never ignore sudden chest pain, it’s necessary to note that women are more likely to show other common symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, shortness of breath, and jaw pain.
These signs are often more subtle than the classic crushing chest pain often associated with heart attacks. Women tend to describe feeling chest pain as more of a tightness or pressure rather than a sharp pain. This is likely because women often experience small vessel heart disease or coronary micro-vascular disease.
The more diverse nature of heart attack symptoms for women can be confused with other conditions like the flu, mental stress, or a panic attack. Women’s symptoms also tend to happen when they are resting or asleep. All these factors can cause women to downplay their symptoms or delay getting care.
Differences Between a Heart Attack and Anxiety
Those who suffer from panic attacks say that acute anxiety can feel similar to a heart attack. Both conditions cause tightness in the chest, shortness of breath, dizzinesses, sweating, and a racing heartbeat. It’s important to be mindful of your body, health history, and any risk factors that may increase your chances of suffering a heart attack.
If you are a heavy smoker, have high blood pressure, or have a family history of heart disease, you are more likely to experience a heart attack. On the other hand, if you have recently experienced a traumatic event, suffer from chronic stress, or have been diagnosed with depression, you may be dealing with anxiety. When acute anxiety feels like a heart attack, it can elevate distress. Thankfully, when your stress diminishes, the symptoms often do, too.
Actions to Take During a Heart Attack
If something feels wrong or the pain feels persistent, listen to your heart. When experiencing these symptoms or if you think you are having a heart attack—call for medical help immediately. Dial 9-1-1 and get to the hospital right away. Have someone drive you if necessary. Do not drive yourself unless you have no other option.
Take care of yourself when you feel unwell and don’t delay getting medical attention. Repetitive or prolonged stress overworks your body, heart, arteries, and adrenal glands. Some coping mechanisms, like smoking cigarettes or eating fatty foods, can cause additional stress to your body. If left unchecked, unhealthy behaviors can develop into risk factors for a heart attack. It’s better to see your doctor than wait too long.
How to Reduce the Risk of Heart Disease
- Stop or don’t start smoking
- Exercise often
- Eat a healthy diet by avoiding saturated or trans fat, added sugars, and high amounts of salt
- Take prescribed medications
- Get your cholesterol and blood pressure checked regularly
- Doctors may recommend daily aspirin for women over 65
Differences in Treating Heart Disease for Women and Men
Generally, treating heart disease is similar for women and men. Treatments often include medication, angioplasty, stenting, or coronary bypass surgery.
Unfortunately, women who do not present the typical symptoms of chest pain are less likely to be offered these options. Additionally, for women experiencing symptoms caused by coronary micro-vascular disease, treatment often includes recommended healthy lifestyle changes and medication.
Finding More Options for Maintaining A Healthy Heart
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