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Heart Attack Symptoms: An Action Plan for Women

A Healthy Hearts Guide  WHF red heart corporate logo ®

picture EMT with defibrillator
picture of emergency room sign

  • Heart disease is our nation's number one killer.

  • Getting treatment quickly –at the first sign of distress –is critical for lifesaving medicines and treatments to work.

  • Newer blood tests are being used to diagnose a heart attack more quickly and accurately.

There are about 500,000 heart attack deaths in the U.S. each year. At least 250,000 people die before they even get to the hospital. Many of these deaths could be prevented by acting quickly and by getting treatment right away, especially within the first hour of having chest pain

Women account for nearly half of all heart attack deaths. Between the ages of 40 and 60, as many women die of heart disease as breast cancer. Over a lifetime, heart disease kills five times as many women as breast cancer. Heart disease is our nation's number one killer. Newer blood tests are being used to diagnose a heart attack more quickly and accurately. Getting treatment quickly –at the first sign of distress –is critical for lifesaving medicines and treatments to work.

Place a checkmark next to the heart disease risk factors that apply to you

  Smoking or daily exposure to second-hand smoke (at home or at work)
  Past heart attack or known coronary artery disease
  Family history
  Elevated lipids (over 240 mg/dL. or HDL less than 35 mg/dL)
  Abnormal heartbeat
  High blood pressure
  Birth control pills (in combination with smoking)
  Overweight (by 20 or more pounds)
  Post-menopausal (and without estrogen replacement therapy)
  Sedentary lifestyle

The Warning

A Heart Attack may cause some or all of these symptoms:

  • Pain, pressure, fullness, discomfort or squeezing in the center of the chest

  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing

  • Stabbing chest pain

  • Radiating pain to shoulder(s), neck, back, arm(s) or jaw

  • Pounding heartbeats (palpitations) or feeling extra heartbeats

  • Upper abdominal pain

  • Nausea, vomiting or severe indigestion

  • Sweating for no apparent reason

  • Dizziness with weakness

  • Sudden extreme fatigue

  • Panic with feeling of impending doom

A note about women's milder symptoms - About a third of women experience no chest pain at all when having a heart attack and 71% of women report flu-like symptoms for two weeks to a month prior to having more acute chest discomfort or severe shortness of breath. These milder symptoms are under-reported to emergency room staff.

If you suspect a heart attack, call 9-1-1
  • Say “I am having a heart attack”.

  • Chew an uncoated aspirin right away as this can reduce damage to the heart muscle.

  • Go to the nearest medical facility with 24-hour emergency cardiac care. Don't drive yourself. If you're not sure that the pain you are experiencing is serious, it is best to go to the emergency room to find out.

  • Get treatment quickly. Clot buster medicine and coronary angioplasty work best if provided after the first signs of distress, so don’t wait. Get to the emergency room without delay. Every Minute Counts!.

In the hospital emergency room...

  • The doctor will order an electrocardiogram (EKG) and blood work to see if you have had a heart attack. Even if your EKG is normal, more testing is necessary. A number of new tests make it possible to diagnose a heart attack more quickly and accurately than ever before. Emergency room doctors have been trained to diagnose heart attacks quickly and to start treatments rapidly to prevent damage to your heart muscle.

  • The emergency room doctor may feel that you are not in any danger and that you may go home, but, if you are uncomfortable with this decision, ask for an opinion from a cardiologist before being released and insist on being admitted into the hospital overnight for observation.

  • Be Clear, Objective and Persistent when describing symptoms and insist on the best care for your heart.

Note: If you have a heart attack, your best chance of survival is to have the blocked artery opened quickly - within 90 minutes of onset of symptoms, but not all hospitals have the facilities to perform angioplasty. Find the nearest hospital with a catheterization lab now, preferably one with a full heart surgery center, and ask to be taken there directly in an emergency. If there isn't a catheterization lab nearby, go to the closest hospital and start treatment with medicine alone. Although not as efficient as angioplasty, it still will help.

Heart Attack Facts |  Heart Attack: An Action Plan for Women  |  Women’s Heart Risk Quiz |  What is a Heart Attack? |  Panic Attack or Heart Attack? -  Responding to Chest Pain | 

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1999-2000; updates: 2002, 2004, 2005, 2007 Women's Heart Foundation, Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized use prohibited. The information contained in this Women's Heart Foundation (WHF) Web site is not a substitute for medical advice or treatment, and WHF recommends consultation with your doctor or health care professional.