In TV and movies, characters (usually men) suffering a heart attack will go wide-eyed and clutch their chest. But in real life, a heart attack can come on without chest pain, especially in women. “Two-thirds of women will have less-typical, non-Hollywood heart attack symptoms,” says C. Noel Bairey Merz, MD, director of the Barbra Streisand Women’s Heart Center at the Cedars-Sinai Heart Institute in Los Angeles.
Sure, there’s pressure and upper body pain, but there are also other signs of a heart attack that can be easily mistaken for another ailment (think nausea, dizziness, and fatigue). If you experience any of the following heart attack warning signs and they’re relatively mild, don’t hesitate to call your doctor, as they could indicate a heart attack is imminent (about half are preceded by symptoms days beforehand). And if they are severe or worsen steadily, call 911. You may need help—fast.
The very first symptom of a heart attack listed by the American Heart Association is “uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest.” This discomfort may come in waves lasting more than a few minutes at a time.
But the pain can occur in places other than the chest. Our heart doesn’t have many nerve endings, so it sometimes shares a pathway with nerves to other body parts, causing pain to radiate to the back, shoulders, arms, neck or jaw. Some women say it feels as if an elephant is sitting on their back.
Though most heart attacks don’t make you suddenly lose consciousness, they can reduce or cut off blood flow that brings oxygen to the heart and brain, which may cause you to feel light-headed.
Feeling worn-out after a sleepless night or stressful day is normal. But more than half of women feel extremely tired or weak more than a month before having a heart attack, even though they haven’t exerted themselves.
Unless you’re going through menopause or have just exercised, breaking out into a cold sweat or perspiring excessively could signal a heart attack, which activates the nervous system.
A heart attack may cause nausea, which is twice as likely to occur in women than in men (many also feel like they’re getting the flu days before a heart attack). If you have sudden and constant nausea that doesn’t seem food related, take action.
If workouts inexplicably seem harder, see your doctor. If you suddenly feel like you just ran up stairs and can’t catch your breath when you’re not doing much, or the feeling rouses you from sleep, go to the ER.