A heart attack is a life-threatening event caused by a disruption in the blood flow to the heart. Knowing the female-specific symptoms of a heart attack could help a person seek medical attention sooner, which may save their life.
Women are less likely to survive their first heart attack than men. This may be because the symptoms differ between the sexes. Women are more likely to have a “silent” heart attack or display unusual symptoms.
Also, female biology creates unique risk factors for heart attack, as some diseases that increase risk, such as polycystic ovary syndrome (PCOS), are not present in male biology.
Many people expect a heart attack to come on suddenly. But research suggests that women experience symptoms for several weeks before a heart attack.
A study published in 2003 of 515 women who had experienced a heart attack, reports 80 percent of women had at least 1 symptom at least 4 weeks before their heart attack.
Symptoms may be constant or come and go, and they may also disrupt sleep.
It is vital for a woman who experiences any of these symptoms to seek help immediately, as heart attacks can be fatal, regardless of whether symptoms are mild or severe.
Eight of the symptoms of a possible heart attack are:
1. Chest pain
The most common symptom of heart attack in both males and females is chest pain or discomfort.
It may be described as:
However, women can experience a heart attack without having any chest discomfort.
Some 29.7 percent of the women surveyed in the 2003 study experienced chest discomfort in the weeks before the attack. Also, 57 percent had chest pain during the heart attack.
2. Extreme or unusual fatigue
Unusual fatigue is often reported in the weeks leading up to a heart attack. Fatigue is also experienced just before the event occurs.
Even simple activities that do not require much exertion can lead to feelings of being exhausted.
Feeling weak or shaky is a common acute symptom of a heart attack in a female.
This weakness or shaking may be accompanied by:
- feeling lightheaded
4. Shortness of breath
Shortness of breath or heavy breathing without exertion, especially when accompanied by fatigue or chest pain, may suggest heart problems.
Some women may feel short of breath when lying down, with the symptom easing when they are sitting upright.
Excessive sweating without a normal cause is another common heart attack symptom in women.
Feeling cold and clammy can also be an indicator of heart problems.
6. Upper body pain
This is usually non-specific and cannot be attributed to a particular muscle or joint in the upper body.
Areas that can be affected include:
- upper back or either arm
The pain can start in one area and gradually spread to others, or it may come on suddenly.
7. Sleep disturbances
Almost half of women in the 2003 study reported issues with sleep in the weeks before they had a heart attack.
These disturbances may involve:
- difficulty getting to sleep
- unusual waking throughout the night
- feeling tired despite getting enough sleep
8. Stomach problems
Some women may feel pain or pressure in the stomach before a heart attack.
Other digestive issues associated with a possible heart attack can include:
Heart attack post-menopause
The risk of heart attack increases due to falling estrogen levels after menopause.
Post-menopause heart attack symptoms include:
- pain or discomfort in the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
- rapid or irregular heartbeat
- severe chest pain
- sweating without activity