If you haven’t witnessed or experienced a heart attack firsthand, you may picture a man suddenly clutching his chest and collapsing to the ground (at least as depicted on screen). Except that some of the symptoms may not be so drastic or apparent–-and in women may even present differently. Heart disease is the number one killer of women in the United States, so it’s important to beware of these red flags and take appropriate action.
Discomfort in the chest or other areas
While intense chest pressure is the most recognizable sign of a heart attack, women may experience pain in other areas such as in the arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach – particularly in the upper abdomen. “Although men and women can experience chest pressure that feels like an elephant sitting across the chest, women can experience a heart attack without chest pressure, ” says Nieca Goldberg, M.D., medical director for the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU’s Langone Medical Center.
Shortness of breath
You could feel so short of breath, “as though you ran a marathon, but you haven’t made a move,” Goldberg says. This symptom can also indicate a silent heart attack or (in medical terms) silent ischemia due to a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle.
Nausea or vomiting
Flu-like symptoms such as nausea can occur weeks or even days before a heart attack. In an account written for The Washington Post, Sue Palmer, a Nashville-based attorney woke up one night vomiting. Although she thought it was a probable 24-hour bug and tried going back to bed, her husband convinced her to go to the E.R., which ultimately saved her life. Palmer was having a heart attack which the doctors were able to successfully operate.
Unless you’re having hot flashes or feeling some sort of heat, get it checked out. Breaking out in a cold sweat is common for women who are experiencing a heart attack. It may feel more like stress-related sweating as opposed to perspiration from exercise or warm weather.
Lightheadedness or dizziness
If you’re experiencing lightheadedness accompanied by some of the above symptoms, it’s important to check yourself out. “In older adults, lightheadedness may be the only symptom of a heart attack or a stroke, especially if it doesn’t go away,” says Dr. Shamai Grossman, an associate professor of emergency medicine at Harvard Medical School.
If you’re experiencing any of the above symptoms, don’t put it off. Consult a healthcare professional.