UNC Health Talk

Heart Attack Symptoms: Women vs. Men

What do you think is the No. 1 cause of death of women in the United States?

Many people think it’s breast cancer, but that’s not the right answer. Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women, accounting for 22.4 percent of women’s deaths in 2013. Cancer—and that’s all forms of cancer combined, not just breast cancer—came in second place.

Heart disease is traditionally thought of as a man’s disease, which is one reason why many people don’t know it’s the leading cause of death in American women. In fact, heart disease affects more women than men, says dietitian Rose Langley, RD, LDN, with UNC REX Heart & Vascular.

When anyone suffers a heart attack, getting immediate medical help is crucial in helping save that person’s life. But women having a heart attack are more likely to experience different symptoms than the ones commonly portrayed on TV and in movies, such as crushing pain to the chest. For that reason, they may not realize they need to call 911.

Here’s what you need to know about heart attack signs and symptoms:

Symptom: Chest Pain

In men: Heart attacks are sometimes described as feeling like an elephant is sitting on your chest. And while chest pain is a common heart attack symptom in men, it’s often much subtler. Most heart attacks start slowly as mild pain or discomfort. People often dismiss heart attack warning signs as heartburn or a pulled muscle, causing them to wait too long before getting help.

In women: The most common heart attack symptom in women, as with men, is chest pain or discomfort. However, sometimes women have heart attacks and feel no chest pain at all, and women are more likely than men to experience some of the other common symptoms. “Women will present to the ER with more nausea, fatigue and shortness of breath, while men talk about the intense chest pressure,” says Paula Miller, MD, director of the UNC Women’s Heart Program.

Common Heart Attack Symptoms in Both Men and Women

According to the Chest Pain Center at UNC REX Healthcare, common heart attack symptoms for both men and women include:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back
  • Discomfort or pain in the upper body, one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat or sweating
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness

Additional Heart Attack Symptoms That Women May Experience

In addition to the common heart attack symptoms, women may experience one or more of the following:

  • Tightness, squeezing or pressure in the chest, throat, upper abdomen or neck
  • Nausea and indigestion-like symptoms, including heartburn or an upset stomach
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, fainting or sweating that occurs with or without chest pain
  • Numbing or tingling sensation in the left arm
  • Back pain
  • Difficulty breathing or shortness of breath that occurs with or without exertion
  • Waking during the night out of breath
  • Unexplained severe anxiety, fatigue or overall lack of energy

Want to know more about your risk for heart disease? Take a free HeartAware online risk assessment. Learn more about our cardiac care at UNC REX Healthcare and UNC Medical Center or find a cardiologist near you.