Women shouldn’t ignore these atypical heart attack symptoms

Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women

February is heart health month. Cardiovascular disease is the number one killer of women, causing one in three deaths each year.

While we often see heart attacks portrayed in movies or on TV as a sudden onset of chest pains, that’s not always the case, especially when it comes to women.

10 News spoke to a Carilion cardiologist and CRMH Cath Lab Medical Director, Dr. Ayoub Mirza who said women have more atypical symptoms of heart attacks compared to men.

“Women can manifest heart attacks with shortness of breath, or the symptoms may start slowly. They may have a sudden onset of weakness. They may not always think that they are always having a heart attack. So, they tend to ignore their symptoms, as a result of which sometimes they present late and the outcome is poor,” said Dr. Mirza.

His advice to women -- take symptoms seriously. He said minutes can make a difference between life and death.

Anytime you suspect you could be having a heart attack, call 911.

The American Heart Association says heart attack symptoms in women are:

  • Chest pain - but not always,
  • Pain or pressure in the lower chest or upper abdomen,
  • Jaw, neck or upper back pain,
  • Nausea or vomiting,
  • Shortness of breath,
  • Fainting,
  • Indigestion, extreme fatigue.

The American Heart Association said the symptoms of extreme fatigue and nausea or vomiting occur in women. Women may also describe chest pain in different ways. For some, it may feel more like pressure. For others, it can be a tightness. Women are more likely to have more than one heart attack symptom.

Many women report that something felt off before they had a heart attack, although they could not pinpoint why.

What do I do if I’m having a heart attack?

If you experience any of these signs or symptoms:

  • Dial 911 immediately and follow the operator’s instructions. Don’t drive yourself to the hospital. The longer you wait, the harder a heart attack is to treat. Heart attack symptoms that last more than five minutes should prompt an emergency call.
  • Let the 911 operator know your address. Say, “I think I’m having a heart attack.” Don’t hang up the phone.
  • Follow any instructions given by the 911 operator. They may ask you to take an aspirin or nitroglycerin if you have it.
  • Try to stay as calm as possible and take deep, slow breaths while you wait for the emergency responders.
  • Unlock the door. Lay on the floor where emergency responder workers can see you.

Carilion Clinic has created a heart health resource page with helpful tips and information written by their experts here. Additional videos can be found here.

Here are 10 other facts the American Heart Association said you need to know about women and cardiovascular disease:

  • Cardiovascular disease kills more women than all forms of cancer combined and yet only 44% of women recognize that cardiovascular disease is their greatest health threat.
  • Among females 20 years and older, nearly 45% are living with some form of cardiovascular disease and less than 50% of women entering pregnancy in the United States have good heart health.
  • Cardiovascular disease is the No. 1 killer of new moms and accounts for over on-third of maternal deaths. Black women have some of the highest maternal mortality rates.
  • Overall, 10% to 20% of women will have a health issue during pregnancy, and high blood pressure, preeclampsia and gestational diabetes during pregnancy greatly increase a women’s risk for developing cardiovascular disease later in life.
  • Going through menopause does not cause cardiovascular disease, but the approach of menopause marks a point in midlife when women’s cardiovascular risk factors can accelerate, making increased focus on health during this pivotal life stage is crucial.
  • Most cardiac and stroke events can be prevented through education and lifestyle changes, such as moving more, eating smart and managing blood pressure.
  • 51.9% of high blood pressure deaths, otherwise known as hypertension or the “silent killer,” are in women, and out of all women, 57.6% of Black females have hypertension — more than any other race or ethnicity.
  • While there are an estimated 4.1 million female stroke survivors living today, approximately 57.5% of total stroke deaths are in women.
  • Women are often less likely to receive bystander CPR because rescuers often fear accusations of inappropriate touching, sexual assault or injuring the victim.
  • Women continue to be underrepresented in Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) fields, as well as in research. In fact, women occupy nearly half of all U.S. jobs (48%), but only 27% of jobs in STEM fields. Furthermore, only 38% of participants in clinical cardiovascular trials are women.

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