Warning Signs of a Heart Attack in Women

By Spader, Catherine, RN

You lead a busy life and may feel exhausted after a stressful day at work or managing your hectic schedule. Check in with yourself and ask if your fatigue seems excessive relative to your activity level. Unusual fatigue is also a sign of a heart attack, especially in women.

How Does a Woman Feel Before or During a Heart Attack?

Warning signs of a heart attack (myocardial infarction) in women are often subtle and easy to dismiss. As a woman, you are less likely than a man to have chest pain. You may have unusual fatigue, weakness, or other symptoms without chest pain.

Up to one month or longer before a heart attack, women are known to have the following warning signs and symptoms:

  • Unusual tiredness with your usual activities, such as working or taking the kids to their activities

  • Tossing and turning at night, waking in the middle of the night, or waking up too early

  • Shortness of breath

  • Indigestion

  • Anxiety, uneasiness, or sense of dread

  • Heart racing or palpitations

  • Heavy or weak feeling in your arms

During a heart attack, women are more likely than men to have these symptoms:

  • Shortness of breath, or feeling like you can’t breathe or take a deep breath

  • Feeling like you might throw up

  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

  • Heavy or weak feeling in the arms

  • General weak feeling, or that you don’t have strength

  • Dizziness or feeling as if you might pass out

  • Fatigue

  • Back or jaw pain

What Should a Woman Do for Warning Signs of a Heart Attack?

A heart attack in a woman younger than 50 years is twice as likely to be fatal than a heart attack in a man. Delaying treatment, even by a few minutes, increases the risk of permanent heart damage and death at any age. Yet studies show that women tend to wait longer than their male counterparts to seek emergency treatment for warning signs of a heart attack, according to the Women’s Heart Foundation (Source: WHF).

Here’s what you should do to if you have any heart attack symtpoms, even if they don’t seem serious:

  • Call 911. Follow the operator’s instructions until the ambulance arrives. This may include taking an aspirin to help prevent a blood clot in your heart or keep the clot from getting bigger. Be sure to tell the operator if you know you are allergic to aspirin, you have a bleeding disorder, or if you are taking blood-thinning medications. Emergency personnel will treat you as if you are having a heart attack until all your tests (on site and at the hospital) are complete.

  • Be vigilant. At the hospital ER, ask for a full explanation of all your tests and ask questions until you are sure you understand everything. Women may not show signs of a heart attack on electrocardiograms (EKGs) or other tests in the same way a man does. This can make it more difficult for doctors to interpret test results. Because of this, women with negative test results are often admitted to the hospital overnight for observation and more tests. Whether or not you are admitted to the hospital depends on your age, personal and family medical history, what other symptoms you have, and your test results.

If you are sent home from the ER and feel uneasy about it, tell the ER doctor about your concerns. Diagnosing a heart attack in a woman is not always clear-cut and may require repeat testing. Be adamant if you would feel more comfortable admitted to the hospital, or see a cardiologist before you go home.

  • After discharge. Be sure to follow all instructions from your doctor after you are discharged from the hospital. Don’t hesitate to call 911 again if your symptoms return or become more severe. A heart attack can occur at any time, even if you have just been in the hospital.

To speed up medical care during an emergency, it is a good idea to make a list of your medical problems, medications, and your doctor’s name and phone number. Prepare this list before an emergency and bring it with you to the hospital, or bring your medicine bottles. Also, tell your family members about your medications and medical history in case you are unable to answer questions. You may want to have this information in written form and attached to your refrigerator or in an area your family knows about.

Not all hospitals and doctors are equally skilled in recognizing and treating heart attacks in women. You are your best advocate. Don’t be afraid to be persistent about getting the best care for your heart.

Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD Copyright: © Copyright 2012 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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