Do you know the warning signs?
February 2nd was “Wear Red Day” to raise awareness for women’s heart health. This is an important reminder that heart disease is not just prevalent among men, but also among women. In fact, it is the number one cause of death among both men and women in the U.S.
“There has been an increase in awareness recently that heart disease is the #1 cause of death in postmenopausal women,” says Robert Herman, MD, FACP, FACC, a cardiologist at The Villages Health Specialty Care Center. “We have seen an increasing number of women seek care and treatment in our cardiology clinics over the past few years for symptoms suggestive of coronary artery disease.”
Here are 11 red flags that could signal a heart attack in women:
- Breathing Difficulties – Shortness of breath is a common and very frightening precursor to a heart attack if you’re a woman. It may come on suddenly and without warning (i.e., not following physical activity), for no apparent reason. Imagine gasping for air like you’ve just run up a few flights of stairs, but when you’re sitting stationary.
- Heavy Perspiration – You might break out into a cold-clammy sweat when you have to present at a company meeting. However, many women suffering a heart attack start perspiring without any stressors present. The problem is that women often mistake this as a hot flash or blame it on their menstrual cycle.
- Disrupted Sleep – Women who’ve suffered a heart attack often recall waking up in the middle of a deep sleep unable to catch their breath. This form of sleep apnea can occur during a heart attack, compressing the upper airway and robbing the heart of essential blood flow.
- Exhaustion – We all experience exhaustion when we burn the candle at both ends—taking care of everyone else, but ourselves. Heart attacks are sneaky in this regard, zapping women of energy, even when they’ve been getting adequate sleep and eating right.
- Stomach Cramps – Abdominal pain that is often shrugged off with the statement, “It must be something I ate!” often ends in a heart attack for unsuspecting women. So what you might brush off as heartburn or a nasty intestinal bug (i.e., food poisoning), may actually be a more sinister heart issue.
- Sharp Upper Body Pain – While men may feel “the weight of an elephant” sitting on their chests—heart attacks for women often cause sharp pains in the upper body. It’s common for women to complain of sharp, shooting pain or dull, gradually mounting pain in the neck, upper arms, or jaw. Regardless, the pain can be so strong that it rouses you from sleep.
- Jaw Pain – Although it is rare, a red flag for a heart attack is a sore jaw. This is because when there is a problem with our heart, the nerves in that general area react – which is why we feel pain in areas other than the direct area. But because the jaw is not located in the chest, it is often another overlooked symptom for heart-related problems.
- Rapid Heart Rate – An intensely rushing heartbeat will commonly accompany feelings of intense anxiety and sweating in women suffering a heart attack. You might think you’re having an anxiety attack, because it strikes suddenly, your heart overexerting, during a non-stressful endeavor.
- Chest Pain – While the crushing chest pain that men experience during a heart attack is less intense for women, chest pain can still occur leading up to and during a heart attack. Although instead of pain, women feel tight discomfort that is commonly described as a full feeling across the entire chest, not solely on the left side of the chest.
- Nausea – Nausea can happen for many reasons and is not a common symptom or red flag that comes to mind when we think of heart attacks. However, nausea can occur a few days before having a heart attack. And because the heart attack doesn’t happen shortly after, it often just gets chalked up to what we ate.
- Pain in Either Arm – Many of us have heard that when you are having a heart attack, you might feel a sharp pain in your left arm. Well for women, they can experience this sharp pain in either arm. So whether you feel a strong pain in one arm or the other, you should get it looked at immediately, especially when felt with other heart attack-related symptoms.
“Prevention of disease requires identifying and reducing reversible risk factors that we know contribute to the development of the disease. This means set goals to eliminate smoking, maintain an ideal body weight, check cholesterol levels and treat when abnormal, check blood pressure and treat when abnormal, and perform aerobic exercise several times per week,” says Dr. Herman.
If you experience any of the above symptoms that resolve within a few minutes, immediately call your care center (or medical provider) for assistance to guide you on next steps. If symptoms persist or worsen, immediately call 911.
To learn how to prevent a heart attack and other heart healthy tips, register to attend one of our free heart healthy courses.