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Heart Attack Symptoms Can Differ in Women: Know the Signs to Save Your Life

Heart disease is the top killer of U.S. women but most don’t know that.
FACT CHECKED BY Emilia Paluszek

Heart disease is the top cause of death among women in the United States, accounting for one in five deaths among women. But fewer than half of all women realize that, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. A heart attack strikes every 40 seconds in the U.S. But symptoms of a heart attack differ for women and people assigned female at birth, compared with men, officials say. Knowing the difference could save a life. Women's heart attack symptoms may include shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting and even jaw pain. Such symptoms may appear more than a month before a heart attack, and women and their doctors may attribute them to acid reflux, the flu or age-related conditions rather than heart disease, according to the American Heart Association. Here are the symptoms women may show when they're having a heart attack. If you have them, call 911 immediately or go to an emergency room. Discuss potential heart attack symptoms with your doctor.


Chest Pain

Woman touching her heart while sitting at the table in her big office.

The typical presentation of a heart attack in men is chest pain, and women can have that as well. It can also feel like pressure or fullness in the center of the chest. "About 90% of women and men have chest pain when they're having a heart attack," says Mingsum Lee, a clinical cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente's Los Angeles Medical Center. But women more often than men may experience a heart attack without the severe chest pain that typifies a man's cardiac arrest, and that's where the confusion comes into play.


Jaw Pain

Mature woman feeling strong pain, toothache.

Women may have pain in the throat, arm, back, abdomen, neck or jaw when having a heart attack. Why? Heart attacks result from blockages in arteries. But women more typically have blockages not only in large main arteries but also in smaller ones that supply blood to the heart. This is called small vessel heart disease or coronary microvascular disease. That can lead to pain in other parts of the body beyond the chest, as well as pain when at rest or asleep, according to the Mayo Clinic.



young woman with nausea in all denim outfit sitting on bed
Shutterstock / New Africa

Women report stomach disturbances, nausea or vomiting while having a heart attack. That can be accompanied by a cold sweat, lightheadedness or dizziness or a feeling of pressure. Because of this, some women and their doctors may attribute a heart attack to indigestion or heartburn, according to Kaiser Permanente.


Shortness of Breath

Young woman suffering from breathing problem near window indoors.

Another common symptom among women is shortness of breath, with or without chest pain or pressure. It may come on suddenly and occur while doing simple tasks that otherwise would not be strenuous, such as climbing a flight of stairs or going for a walk. It could be severe enough to cause a woman to feel lightheaded or faint.


Other Symptoms

Swollen feet

Other symptoms may presage a heart attack or occur during a so-called "silent heart attack." These include fatigue; swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, abdomen or neck veins; anxiety or a feeling of foreboding; or insomnia. Taken alone, such symptoms could characterize less life-threatening conditions. But if they occur together, they could indicate a cardiac event.