36 Warning Signs Your Heart Sends You
Movies and TV have taught us the telltale sign of heart trouble: A sharp, distinct pain in the chest that's immediately evident as an emergency. That's not a great education. "Signs of heart disease can often be mild and so brief that they could be dismissed for something else or not even be noticed at all," says Roshini Malaney, DO, a cardiologist with Manhattan Cardiology in New York City. Oftentimes, the heart sends subtle messages that's something's wrong, in the form of symptoms that can be felt from your head to your legs. Here are the vague or ambiguous signs the experts say you should watch for.
Feeling more run-down than usual could be a sign your heart's not pumping as it should. "Heart disease can often present with vague, ambiguous or silent signs," says Sitaramesh Emani, MD, a cardiologist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. "After diagnosis, we often look back and realize that some of these less noticeable signs were present for quite some time earlier. Such signs can include a new and unexplained change in energy levels or new difficulties carrying out previously doable tasks."
The Rx: "Persistence of these symptoms for more than a short period of time (often longer than a few days) may warrant further evaluation," says Emani. "People with these concerns should contact their medical provider for further evaluation, which may include an office evaluation, blood work, or specific diagnostic testing."
Tugging in Your Chest
Sometimes a heart attack won't have you dramatically clutching your chest, just feeling that something's not quite right. "Patients typically will complain of a pressure/tugging/discomfort, usually in the middle of their chest, sometimes that radiates down the left arm, or into the jaw," says Jeremy Pollock, MD, a cardiologist at the University of Maryland St. Joseph Medical Center in Towson, Maryland. "This can be associated with exercise or exertion, and relieved by rest." The chest discomfort could be in the upper or lower chest or right or left side of the chest, says Nieca Goldberg, MD, a cardiologist and medical director of NYU Women's Heart Program in New York City.
The Rx: If something feels off in your chest, don't hesitate to seek medical advice. "The symptoms are clues that you may have a heart problem, but just having the symptoms doesn't make the diagnosis," says Goldberg. "Additional testing needs to be done to see if it's heart disease or another condition."
Shortness of Breath
Feeling short of breath can be a sign of heart disease, says Goldberg. It could also signify lung disease such as asthma, COPD, pneumonia or a pulmonary embolism. In any case, if you find yourself unusually breathless, see your doctor ASAP.
The Rx: "Patients with symptoms—especially if they are new symptoms—that are concerning should not hesitate to seek medical advice," says Pollock. "If a sudden onset of chest pain/discomfort/pressure/shortness of breath is not relieved rapidly, do not hesitate to call 911."
Unusual Swelling or Pain
"Unusual swelling in the abdomen or lower extremities is sometimes a sign of heart issues," says Emani.
The Rx: If you experience an unexplained swelling in any body part, see a healthcare provider ASAP.
You Faint or Feel Faint
Fainting or feeling lightheaded may be a sign of low blood pressure or anemia, says Goldberg. Both conditions can signify heart disease.
The Rx: If you faint, or feel like you're going to, don't wait to see a doctor to find out what's going on.
A 2018 Harvard study found that hearing loss was 54% more common in people with heart disease. "Heart disease impairs blood flow, and the inner ear, known as the cochlea, is extremely sensitive and can be impacted by a reduced blood flow, causing hearing loss," says Lisa A. Perhacs, AuD, an audiologist and clinical education specialist at Signia. "Because the cochlea is one of the smallest organs of the body, hearing loss can be one of the first indicators of heart disease."
The Rx: "If you're over 40, it's important to have your hearing evaluated annually for early detection of hearing loss and also early detection of heart disease," says Perhacs.
Tummy trouble could be the stomach flu—or the sign of more serious issues under your hood. "Cold sweats, nausea and vomiting could be signs of a viral infection, but they also could be signs that there is something going on with your heart," says Malaney. "Another common complaint is stomach pain or heartburn, which could be due to indigestion. However, this also could be a symptom of a blockage in the arteries, which is decreasing the blood flow to the heart and often occurs prior to a heart attack."
The Rx: "If you have any of the above symptoms that are new or occurring more frequently or with increasing severity, it's important to see your doctor to make sure there is nothing going on with your heart, especially if you have risk factors for heart disease," says Malaney.
If you don't have the energy to complete workouts you used to finish handily, that could be the sign of circulation problems. "Fatigue or a limitation in exercise tolerance—or daily activities which are a change from the person's baseline—can be a sign that the heart is unable to receive the increased blood flow it needs when it needs to work harder, such as with exercise," says Arrash Fard, MD, a cardiologist with Adventist Health in Simi Valley, California. "This limitation in blood flow could be caused by buildup of cholesterol within the coronary arteries, the blood vessels the heart uses to supply itself with blood, nutrients and oxygen."
The Rx: Don't write it off as just being worn out. "In women in particular, increased fatigue or a decrease in exercise tolerance are usually attributed to being overworked or stressed. These should not be ignored—even these common symptoms could imply that there is something going on with the heart," says Malaney.
Heaviness In Your Chest
Instead of a sharp pain, a heart attack can feel like a heavy weight. "Most people wrongly believe that heart attacks are always accompanied by severe chest pain. This is not true," says Richard Wright, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "Most of the time, the signs and symptoms are more subtle. Usually, people describe a feeling of oppressive discomfort and a heavy feeling that they don't call pain, most often located in the center of the chest."
The Rx: "Unfortunately, there is no simple way that someone can determine whether they themselves are having a heart attack," says Wright. "To distinguish whether these problems are related to a possible heart attack, an electrocardiogram, blood tests, or imaging studies are usually required. If someone is concerned that they might be suffering from a heart attack, they need to immediately contact their medical professional, present to an emergency room, or call for paramedic assistance."
This Skin Condition
High cholesterol, a major risk factor for heart disease, often has no physical symptoms. Unless you have familial hypercholesterolemia, a genetic disorder that elevates cholesterol levels, says Robert Greenfield, MD, a cardiologist and lipidologist at MemorialCare Heart & Vascular Institute in Fountain Valley, California. That can create visible signs on your skin.
"The signs include small yellow plaques around the eyelids called xanthelasma," he says. "A white ring around the iris of the eye is actually a cholesterol deposit and is called an arcus. Moreover, in the familial form, cholesterol can actually deposit around the joints such as elbows and knees and look like bumps, and are called xanthomas."
The Rx: If you have signs of familial hypercholesterolemia, talk with your doctor. If you don't, get your cholesterol level checked at least once a year. If your "bad" cholesterol is high, follow your doctor's suggestions. "Heart attacks and strokes are conditions that can be caused by high cholesterol," says Greenfield. "And that's why the statin drugs—as well as a good diet and exercise—are recommended."
Fluttering in Your Chest
"Heart palpitations are an abnormal sensation of your heart beating," says Alexandra Lajoie, MD, a cardiologist at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "It can simply be an increased awareness of your regular heartbeat, or a sensation that your heart is abnormally racing, pounding, or having irregular or skipped beats. Sometimes people feel them only in certain positions like lying on their left side, or feel like their heart is jumping into their throat." Heart palpitations may be harmless, or they could be a sign of a heart condition like atrial fibrillation (AF), an irregular heartbeat that's potentially dangerous.
The Rx: "While the majority of palpitations are not dangerous, patients should speak with their doctor about any symptoms of palpitations in order to ensure that they are not caused by a potentially serious heart problem," says Lajoie. "Palpitations that occur with lightheadedness, fainting, shortness of breath, or chest pain should be evaluated by a doctor immediately."
"Patients with heart failure can present with significant weight gain, swelling in the legs, ankle or belly, decreased appetite, shortness of breath made worse with exertion or while lying flat," says Jason Kaplan, DO, clinical assistant professor of cardiology at Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine.
The Rx: "It's important to be seen by your doctor for a thorough examination and appropriate testing to uncover heart disease and its underlying causes," says Kaplan.
High Blood Pressure or High Cholesterol
"High blood pressure and high cholesterol are two relatively silent signs of cardiovascular disease that can lead to a heart attack or stroke," says Lori Mosca, MD, MPH, Ph.D., of the American Heart Association and Go Red for Women volunteer expert. "High blood pressure, or hypertension, is the second leading cause of preventable heart disease and stroke death — second only to smoking."
The Rx: "Eighty percent of cardiac events can be prevented through education and modest lifestyle changes such as moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure," says Mosca. "Yet some people may not know they have high blood pressure or cholesterol until it's too late."
Alone, throat or jaw pain is not a heart danger warning, but if coupled with pain or pressure that is radiating out from the center of your chest up to your throat and/or jaw, it could be a sign of a heart attack reports Harvard Health. "In some cases, unusual jaw, neck, or shoulder pain can be related to heart disease," says Emani.
The Rx: "Pain in the jaw, nausea and shortness of breath are heart attack symptoms that somewhat appear more often in women," says Mosca. "While most people don't immediately associate these symptoms with a heart attack, it's important to remember that they could be the initial signs of a major cardiovascular event."
Pain When Walking
Pain in the lower extremities with walking can be a symptom of PAD, or peripheral arterial disease, says Greenfield.
The Rx: If you experience pain in your legs when walking, don't just slap on some Ben-Gay. See your doctor and describe your symptoms fully.
A little dizziness after a day at Six Flags is normal. When that feeling occurs seemingly out of nowhere, you might be in trouble. Dizziness is often a warning sign for heart disease, often accompanying pulmonary edema. When your brain isn't receiving adequate blood flow, it can make you feel woozy, as can pulmonary edema, which can limit the amount of oxygenated blood being delivered to your organs.
The Rx: If you find yourself feeling dizzy, suddenly, or for several days, be sure to talk to your doctor.
Your Shoulder Aches or Is Numb
Numbness and pain in the left shoulder are among the most widely-reported heart attack symptoms, and definitely ones you shouldn't ignore. While shoulder pain can also stem from everyday wear and tear, like tendonitis or a rotor cuff injury, if the pain is moving down your chest and into your fingertips, it's important you call 911 right away. Often the pain isn't just limited to your arm, however many people experience it in their jaw and neck, too.
The Rx: If you ever experience pain that radiates from your chest down your arm or feel a worsening ache in just your arm, please call 911 immediately as it may be a sign of a heart attack.
You're Always Exhausted
We get it: You don't have enough hours in the day to get everything done and get a good night's rest, too. Tons of things in this world can make you sleepy, from a lack of caffeine to poor sleep, but sudden, unshakable fatigue can be an indication your heart isn't doing its job effectively. When your heart isn't firing on all cylinders, it limits the amount of oxygen-rich blood to your organs, making everything you do both more difficult and more draining. Coupled with the fluid buildup in the lungs that often accompanies heart disease and you've got a recipe for serious exhaustion.
The Rx: If you suddenly feel winded or fatigued from doing something that you have had no trouble with in the past—like climbing a set of stairs or taking a brisk walk—make an appointment with your healthcare provider.
You're Not Hungry
Never feeling hunger again—a dieter's dream. But it can quickly become a nightmare when your appetite vanishes entirely. Lack of hunger can often be an early warning sign of a heart attack.
The Rx: Of course, it may just be a dietary issue. Make sure you stay away from one of the 12 Diets You Should Never Try, According to Health Experts.
Your Thyroid is Functioning Improperly
Your thyroid is one of those body parts you're unlikely to think about until an issue arises. Unfortunately, when it isn't working properly, it can upend your life in virtually no time. A review of research published in the Annals of Internal Medicine reveals that both hypothyroidism and hyperthyroidism increase a person's risk of developing heart disease, and heart disease can also cause thyroid dysfunction by limiting blood flow and causing hormonal changes.
The Rx: Strangely enough, many of the symptoms of thyroid issues, like fatigue, coughing, and rapid weight gain, are also symptoms of heart disease, so investigating one issue may lead to the diagnosis of another.
You Feel a Sense of Doom
A sense of impending doom might be your heart's way of telling you it's time to high-tail it to the doctor. For many people with heart disease, the combined lack of oxygen and blood flow can create a profound sense of doom, which can appear out of nowhere. Coupled with the breathless feeling that often accompanies pulmonary edema, you can feel serious terror in even the most serene spaces.
The Rx: If a sense of doom looms for more than a few days, call your doctor and make an appointment.
You're Always Thirsty
We could all stand to drink more water —the CDC suggests that most adults are drinking less than a third of what they should each day—but a constant thirst that never goes away might have more to do with your heart than your hydration.
The Rx: The combination of electrolyte imbalances and gastrointestinal upset that often go along with heart disease can make you feel thirsty even when you've just downed a significant amount of water, so don't be afraid to speak up if you're suddenly parched all the time.
You Have Sleep Apnea
The snoring that keeps you from getting a good night's sleep could be a sign that your heart isn't working as well as it should. Heart disease and sleep apnea often go hand-in-hand, although it's not always clear if the former causes the latter, or vice versa. If you're concerned that you may have sleep apnea, talk to your doctor. Losing weight with the 55 Best-Ever Ways to Boost Your Metabolism may help, too.
The Rx: If sleep apnea is diagnosed, a CPAP machine can be used at night to help keep breathing regular and smooth, and decrease risk of any cardiac complications.
If your breathing sounds like a creaky door being opened and shut, it's high time you made an appointment with a medical professional. Pulmonary edema, a common symptom of heart disease, can cause wheezing and labored breathing.
The Rx: If you feel like your breathing patterns have changed and don't improve in a few days, it's important that you get help ASAP.
Your Ankles Are Swollen
Spending all day on your feet can cause anyone's legs and feet to become a bit swollen. If you don't have a job that keeps you upright all day and your feet and ankles look like they've grown two sizes, your heart could be sending you a message. Your lungs aren't the only part of your body that can be affected by edema; for many heart disease patients, edema of the lower extremities is a sign that their ticker needs a tune-up.
The Rx: If your legs and ankles are swollen for more than several days, it's smart to get yourself checked out to see what might be going on.
You Have Acid Reflux
That burning sensation in your chest might not just be the result of the nachos you had for dinner last night. Acid reflux can be a sign your heart isn't working properly and should be addressed by a pro. Even if it's not a symptom of heart disease, acid reflux can increase your risk of esophageal cancer, so it's important to make sure you get it treated in an expeditious manner.
The Rx: If you experience a bout of heartburn that feels different, or happens in tandem with any of the other symptoms on this list—it may be serious: call 911.
The political climate, the plot of Godzilla, the latest software update on your phone—a little confusion is nothing new. However, feeling seriously confused—like, can't find your house on your block confused—can be a serious sign your heart isn't fulfilling its obligations. When your heart isn't working effectively, it limits the amount of oxygenated blood getting to your brain, making you more likely to get confused easily.
The Rx: If your sudden case of Ralph Wiggum is less funny and more frightening, it's time to see your doctor.
You Can't Shake a Cough
Colds pass around workplaces faster than juicy gossip, but most of the time, a little rest and some hot tea will help you get back on your feet again. However, for those with heart disease—particularly those suffering from pulmonary edema—a persistent cough is often one of the first signifiers of their health issues. If you have a nagging cough that no cold medicine can touch, your doctor should know about it.
The Rx: If this happens to you, call your doctor and find out what's going on.
Your Heart is Pounding
When your heart is pounding after a hard workout, you may be on your way to a longer life. If your heart is pounding while you're sitting at your desk, it's time to talk to your doctor. As plaque in your arteries builds, it limits the ability for blood to flow through them, making your heart work harder while doing the same job.
The Rx: According to the National Stroke Association atrial fibrillation increases the risk of stroke – which is why it's critical to see a doctor if you experience palpitations or irregular heart rhythms.
You're in Serious Pain
Serious chest pain is a symptom you should never ignore, even if you're generally healthy and have no family history of heart disease. Heart attacks are thought to kill 50 percent of the people who have them, many of whom never even realized they had heart disease to begin with. The faster you have your possible cardiac symptoms addressed, the faster you can get life-saving treatment.
The Rx: Even if it turns out your symptoms aren't actually heart-related, a doctor—not Dr. Google—is the only person who can tell you for sure what's causing them. Start on the path to a healthier, more youthful body today by discovering the 50 Secrets to Live to 100!
In a study published in the American Heart Journal, of 515 women that suffered a heart attack, 50% reported issues with their sleep in the weeks prior to their heart attack. They had difficulty falling asleep, had atypical waking throughout the night, and reported feeling tired despite "getting" enough sleep.
The Rx: Of course there are myriad reasons for poor sleep, but if you feel that you are experiencing something outside the norm for you, be smart and get checked out. Better safe than sleepy.
Sudden Flu-Like Symptoms
While heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the United States according to the CDC, women often chalk up tell-tale symptoms to more mundane aches and pains like heartburn, flu, or stress. However, sudden onset of flu-like symptoms like cold sweats, nausea, dizziness, and severe bodily weakness can signal an impending heart attack, especially in women. We at Eat This, Not That! Health cannot say this enough: the symptoms for heart attack are not the same for men and women.
The Rx: If you are a woman, and experience a sudden onset of these symptoms, call your doctor immediately.
Memory Loss and Feeling Disoriented
We know, it sounds confusing that confusion and impaired thinking might be signs of a heart attack. But it's true according to the American Heart Association. While there are many reasons for experiencing disorientation or having trouble remembering things, it's important for you to know that changing levels of certain hormones and minerals in the blood, such as sodium, can cause confusion.
The Rx: If you or someone you love suddenly develops memory loss or looks dazed and unfocused, pay attention, and seek medical attention if coupled with any of the other symptoms on this list.
There are many reasons why you might break out in a sweat. But if you break out in a cold sweat—for no apparent reason—it could be a warning sign of a heart attack, especially if coupled with one or more of these symptoms.
The Rx: If you or someone you know experiences sweating and other possible hallmarks of a cardiac event, call 911.
Change In Skin Color – Becoming Very Pale, Grey or Ashen
Greyish pallor or very pale skin can indicate a lack of oxygenated blood—and here's why it can be a warning sign for heart attack: Our blood carries oxygen to all parts of our body. When the heart is not pumping correctly, it disrupts blood flow, and we experience a lack of oxygen, which in turn, can cause discoloration or lack of color in the skin. According to the American Academy of Dermatologists, this can be due to various conditions, but coupled with other symptoms from this list, can be a strong indicator of heart attack.
The Rx: If you or someone near you suddenly becomes ashen—act fast. There's a strong possibility that it could be a heart attack. Get medical attention immediately.
Panic Attack-Like Feelings
Panic attacks and heart attacks can feel alarmingly similar, with heart palpitations, shortness of breath, sweating, trembling, chest pain, vertigo and more. Panic attacks typically occur in response to a stressful event (though they can happen spontaneously too…), and they pose no immediate danger. A heart attack, however, is dangerous—and requires immediate medical attention. And here's where it gets tricky: in women, heart disease symptoms are sometimes mistaken for panic attack.
The Rx: Telling the difference between the two can be difficult, but if your symptoms have a sudden onset due to extreme stress or if symptoms resolve in 20 to 30 minutes, it's likely a panic attack. But if it feels like a heart attack, with symptoms that persist, it may be a heart attack. Seek help and call 911 to be safe. And to live your happiest and healthiest life, don't miss these 101 Unhealthiest Habits on the Planet.