Heart Attack Symptoms Women Shouldn't Ignore

Chest pain isn't the only sign of a heart attack.

Heart attacks—aka myocardial infarctions—are one way that heart disease can show up. But heart trouble can easily be confused with other ailments, such as indigestion. People assigned female experience symptoms of a heart attack differently than people assigned male at birth.

Heart disease is the number one cause of death for women in the US, accounting for about one in five women's deaths in 2019. That year alone, 301,280 women died from heart disease.

About 80% of people experiencing a heart attack have reported chest pain—the most common sign of heart attacks.

What Causes a Heart Attack?

Heart attacks happen when the flow of blood that brings oxygen to a part of your heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked." If your heart doesn't get enough oxygen, part of the heart muscle begins to die, so prompt care is essential.

The blood flow most often gets blocked when plaque (fatty deposit) builds up in the vessels that carry blood from the heart to other body parts. An area of the plaque can break open, causing a blood clot, and blocking the blood flow. This happens because of coronary artery disease—the most common type of heart disease. Other heart and blood vessel conditions can cause heart attacks, too, through different mechanisms.

Heart Attack Risk Factors for Women

Women may have heart attacks at older ages than men. Specific causes and risk factors exist for women, including:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • High blood sugar
  • Obesity
  • Stress

How To Reduce Heart Attack Risk

There's no sure way to prevent a heart attack, and some risk factors such as older age and family history are unchangeable. But you can reduce your risk by:

  • Eating heart-healthy foods
  • Being active
  • Not smoking
  • Learning to manage your stress
  • Losing weight and keeping a healthy weight

Heart Attack Symptoms

On their own, many heart attack symptoms in women can be due to less serious conditions. For example, they may signal anemia (low red blood cell count), a panic attack, lack of sleep, or dehydration. But if you experience several of the following symptoms at once, especially with chest pain, call a healthcare provider or 911 right away.

Tingling Down One or Both Arms or Legs

While this often means you've got a pinched nerve or arthritis in your neck, "it's important to rule out heart problems first," said Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women's Health at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City.

See a healthcare provider if you notice any tingling in your extremities.

Digestive Symptoms

You could have more than just a bug if your upset stomach comes along with other heart-related symptoms, such as shortness of breath, a cold sweat, or lightheadedness. Nausea can be a symptom of a heart attack for men and women, but women have nausea in 34% of cases, compared to only 22% of cases in men.

Other digestive symptoms that could signal a heart attack are indigestion, heartburn, and vomiting.You may also experience burning or stabbing pain in the upper-middle area of the stomach.

Indigestion associated with a heart attack typically doesn't start shortly after a meal. If you don't usually have stomach issues, and if you're also experiencing other symptoms, call a healthcare provider.

Shortness of Breath/Racing Heart

It may be challenging to differentiate between a panic attack and a heart attack since they can both present with shortness of breath and a racing heart. Other signs of a panic attack include trembling, intense terror, and an overwhelming sense of doom.

Shortness of breath can signal that something is wrong if it occurs while resting or doing light physical activities. When it's a heart attack symptom, it typically occurs during or before chest discomfort, and it may be the only symptom.

Jaw Pain

You can get jaw pain if the heart attack pain radiates (spreads) to the jaw. The pain can occur intermittently and get worse when you exert yourself. The pain can also radiate to the neck, back, arm, or shoulder.

Dizziness/Lightheadedness

Feeling faint or lightheaded for no apparent reason could mean not enough blood is getting to the heart. These signs may signal a heart attack in women if they are accompanied by pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen, upper back pressure, or extreme tiredness. And women are more likely to experience lightheadedness during a heart attack than men.

Lightheadedness combined with cold sweat and nausea is an additional sign of a heart attack. Other warning signs listed include:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Discomfort in other upper areas of the body (arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach)
  • Shortness of breath

If you're feeling dizzy or lightheaded, remember that these symptoms are very common and can be due to many conditions, such as dehydration, motion sickness, or getting up too quickly. Pay attention to your body and see a healthcare provider if you experience additional heart attack symptoms.

Discomfort or Burning in the Chest

Women often describe a heart attack as tightness, heaviness, or pressure in the chest. It may feel like someone is squeezing your heart. Your pain may feel sharp (or stabbing), crushing, or burning. This symptom can sometimes be mistaken for heartburn or indigestion.

But if the pain radiates to the arm or jaw, lasts for more than 10 minutes, and occurs with minimal exertion, it's considered a "typical" presentation of a heart attack.

Extreme Fatigue

If you're unable to walk a block comfortably or if you feel like you have to stop and rest while going about your daily activities, it could be a sign that blood is not getting to the heart fast enough. Unusual tiredness and weakness are more common symptoms in women, again, from the CDC.

People also describe fatigue with terms such as sleepiness, exhaustion, lack of energy, and cognitive change (mental fog). Their arms might feel weak or heavy, and they may feel irritable or demoralized because of fatigue. The feeling can be overwhelming.

In a 2017 review, almost half of women research participants reported fatigue during a heart attack. Fatigue is also the most common prodromal symptom of a heart attack in women—a warning signal that a heart attack is coming. About 71% of women experienced prodromal fatigue.

However, unexplained fatigue is a common sign of numerous conditions, including depression, thyroid issues, anemia (low red blood cell count), or chronic pain. Certain medications, alcohol, and drugs can cause tiredness as well. It's worth seeing a healthcare provider if you experience overwhelming fatigue, but the exhaustion is unlikely to come from a heart attack—unless you experience other symptoms on this list, like chest pain.

When To Call a Healthcare Provider

If you have heart attack symptoms, don't dismiss them as nothing or drive yourself to the hospital. It's always safest to call 911 if you have any of the following symptoms:

  • Chest pain or other symptoms of a heart attack
  • You know you have heart disease and experience chest pain that doesn't go away after five minutes or after taking nitroglycerine
  • You become very short of breath
  • You think you may be having a heart attack
  • You think you may have lost consciousness

A Quick Review

The most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain, pressure, or discomfort. But women are more likely than men to have other symptoms, including:

  • Tingling or pain down one or both arms or legs
  • Digestive symptoms, including nausea, vomiting, indigestion, or heartburn
  • Shortness of Breath
  • Racing heart
  • Radiating pain in jaw, neck, back, arm, or shoulder
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Chest pain, tightness, heaviness, or pressure
  • Extreme fatigue

If you think you may be having a heart attack, don't wait or dismiss it. Call 911 for emergency help right away.

Was this page helpful?
Sources
Health.com uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Lower your risk for the number one killer of women.

  2. Araújo C, Laszczyńska O, Viana M, et al. Sex differences in presenting symptoms of acute coronary syndrome: the EPIHeart cohort studyBMJ Open. 2018;8(2):e018798. Published 2018 Feb 23. doi:10.1136/bmjopen-2017-018798

  3. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart attack.

  4. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. Heart Attacks in Women.

  5. American Heart Association. Heart attack symptoms in women.

  6. Ferry AV, Anand A, Strachan FE, et al. Presenting symptoms in men and women diagnosed with myocardial infarction using sex-specific criteriaJ Am Heart Assoc. 2019;8(17):e012307. doi:10.1161/JAHA.119.012307

  7. Office on Women's Health. Heart attack symptoms.

  8. National Institute of Mental Health. Panic disorder: when fear overwhelms.

  9. Medline Plus. Heart attack.

  10. Ornato JP, Hand MM. Warning signs of a heart attack. Circulation. 2014;129(11).

  11. Medline Plus. Jaw pain and heart attacks.

  12. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Heart disease.

  13. American Heart Association. Heart attack symptoms in women.

  14. Ornato JP, Hand MM. Warning signs of a heart attack. Circulation. 2014;129(11).doi.org/10.1161/CIRCULATIONAHA.113.006126

  15. Medline Plus. Dizziness and vertigo.

  16. Medline Plus. Warning signs and symptoms of heart disease.

  17. National Library of Medicine. StatPearls. Non ST segment elevation myocardial infarction.

  18. Blakeman JR, Stapleton SJ. An integrative review of fatigue experienced by women before and during myocardial infarction. J Clin Nurs. 2018;27(5-6):906-916.doi.org/10.1111/jocn.14122

  19. Medline Plus. Fatigue.

Related Articles