The thought of having a heart attack can be worrying; however, the more familiar you are with the warning signs of a heart attack, the better. Recognising the symptoms of a heart attack early on will ensure you get the help you need quickly and will reduce your risk of further complications or even death. This article will discuss the early warning signs of a heart attack and how they may differ in women compared to men.
About heart attacks
Heart attacks occur when blood vessels (which allow oxygen-saturated blood to reach parts of our body and keep functioning) become blocked by plaque buildup.1 Plaque buildup commonly occurs due to an unhealthy lifestyle which highers cholesterol levels and leads to a gradual buildup of fatty deposits called atheroma on coronary artery walls. After this atheroma breaks off, your body forms a blood clot to repair the damage caused to the artery wall.2 This may cause a blood vessel that supplies the heart itself to become occluded (blocked), as it cannot provide the heart muscle with what it needs to function correctly. This can result in a 'heart attack'.1 Furthermore, it can lead to pain and discomfort, known as angina.1
If the blood flow is impeded for long enough, it leads to scars forming on the heart tissue. If the wounds are severe enough, they may dysregulate how the heart beats and pumps blood to the rest of the body due to the spot changing the electrical signals that control the heart's action. This may mean that a person will have to receive medication or other support for their heart to function correctly.3
Heart disease is responsible for the death of 1 in 5 women, and about 1 in 16 women age 20 and older (6.2%) have coronary heart disease making it the leading cause of death for African American and white women in the United States.4 Surprisingly for many, heart disease kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK every year.5 Furthermore, a recent study found that women were more likely to suffer a heart attack or heart injury after arriving at A&E for chest pain (21% compared to 22%).6
Early signs of heart attack for women
The following are early signs of heart attack for women:7
- Extreme fatigue: feeling weaker and more tired than usual
- Shortness of breath: feeling out of breath after simple or no activity, potentially with no chest discomfort
- Excessive sweating: sweating or cold sweats independent of the room temperature
- Chest pain: sudden discomfort (may be described as pressure, tightness or squeezing in the centre of your chest that doesn't go away)
- Discomfort in the areas of your upper body: pain in the arms and/or back
Other early signs of heart attack for women
Other possible signs include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.7
Symptoms of heart attack for women
The main heart attack symptom that differs between men and women is that:
- Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting and back or jaw pain.7
Other common symptoms include:
- A feeling of pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the centre of your chest lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and returns.
- Pain or discomfort that spreads to the back, jaw, stomach and one or both arms
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
How far in advance can I experience symptoms of a heart attack?
Some people may find it surprising, but symptoms of heart attacks may occur hours or weeks before the actual heart attack.8 This is a precious fact, as it can be used as a sign to be careful and attentive to the signs our bodies are giving us and always to seek medical attention if we believe we are at a health risk.
Risk factors of heart attack for women
Heart attack risk factors for women include:9
Figure: Risk Factors of a heart attack in women
Created by Aastha Malik
Diagnosis and treatment
Heart attack diagnosis can be conducted in the following ways:
- Using an electrocardiogram (ECG) or echocardiogram which can show heart scarring and damage that exists after a heart attack
- Conducting blood tests for the detection of a molecule which is released by injured heart cells
After a heart attack, your doctor will help you assess what areas of your lifestyle can be improved to reduce your risk of another heart attack or further cardiac complications. This may include:
- Taking heart medicine
- Exercising regularly
- Opting for healthier food alternatives
- Maintaining a healthy weight
- Monitoring low-density lipoprotein cholesterol levels and adjusting diet to remain within healthy boundaries
- Quitting smoking
- Implementing stress management techniques
- If further heart issues are found, medical devices such as pacemakers may be recommended
The most impactful actions you can take to lower your risks of heart attack is through all the little choices you make each day. Here are some helpful lifestyle changes you can make to help prevent heart attacks:
- Choose healthier snacks thought the day (e.g., unsalted nuts, popcorn, smoothies).
- Implement exercises into your daily routine (e.g., walk instead of driving, use stairs instead of the lift).
- Reduce daily stress (see stress management techniques)11
Awareness of pre-heart attack symptoms can help you stay more in control of yourself and the ones around you during critical moments. Stay on the lookout for those symptoms and try to maintain a healthy lifestyle to be sure you are doing everything possible to protect yourself from difficult experiences such as heart attacks. Being aware of these facts is the first thing you need to start making better everyday choices, or maintaining the good ones, so it is great that you have read the article. We encourage you to find out more about your health by doing further research and downloading the Klarity app to help you navigate your health.
- What happens to your heart during a heart attack? [Internet]. Heart Foundation NZ. [cited 2022 July 01]. Available from: https://www.heartfoundation.org.nz/your-heart/post-heart-attack/about-heart-attacks.
- Heart Attack [Internet]. British Heart Foundation, [cited 2022 July 01]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack.
- Complications of a Heart Attack [Internet] Nhs.Uk. Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/heart-attack/complications/.
- Women and Heart Disease [Internet] CDC: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available from: https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/women.htm.
- Women and Heart Attacks [Internet] British Heart Foundation. [cited 2022 July 01]. Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack/women-and-heart-attacks.
- The Heart Attack Gender Gap [Internet] The University of Edinburgh. [cited 2022 July 01] Available from: https://www.ed.ac.uk/edinburgh-friends/supplements/the-heart-attack-gender-gap
- Warning Signs of a Heart Attack [Internet] Www.Heart.Org. [cited 2022 July 01]. Available from: https://www.heart.org/en/health-topics/heart-attack/warning-signs-of-a-heart-attack.
- Early Heart Attack Warning Signs| Heart Attack Care | Hospitals of Providence [Internet] The Hospitals of Providence, [cited 2022 July 01] Available from: https://www.thehospitalsofprovidence.com/services/cardiovascular/early-heart-attack-care.
- Women and Heart Attacks [Internet] British Heart Foundation, [cited 2022 July 01]Available from: https://www.bhf.org.uk/informationsupport/conditions/heart-attack/women-and-heart-attacks.
- BMI Calculator | Check Your BMI. [Internet] Nhs.Uk, [cited 2022 July 01] Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/live-well/healthy-weight/bmi-calculator/.
- 10 Stress Busters. [Internet] Nhs.Uk, [cited 2022 July 01] Available from: https://www.nhs.uk/mental-health/self-help/guides-tools-and-activities/tips-to-reduce-stress/.