Women and Heart Health: What to Watch Out For

If you were asked to name the most common signs of a heart attack, which would make your list? Pain in the chest and down the left arm? Sure. Increased sweating, heartburn, or indigestion? Probably. But these symptoms are most common in men.

Warning of a heart attack present very differently in women. The symptoms women usually feel during this health event tend to be much vaguer. That’s why heart disease affects men and women in equal numbers, but is the leading cause of death in women in the U.S.

Here are the five things you need to watch out for.

Here are five signs that could be serious symptoms in which women should prompt someone to seek immediate medical attention.

Nausea and Vomiting

Heart attacks most commonly happen when a blood clot lodges in a coronary artery that’s already narrowed from age-related changes or plaque deposits. When this happens, the area of the heart that receives oxygen-rich blood from that artery is suddenly deprived of oxygen, and the heart tissue begins to die. This causes a phenomenon called cardiogenic vomiting, where patients experience nausea and vomiting induced by the toxins released as injured cardiomyocytes – or the cells that constitute heart tissue –begin to die.

Patients who experience nausea and vomiting, especially when accompanied by other symptoms like chest pressure, shortness of breath, or dizziness, should seek immediate medical attention to rule out a heart attack.


Often the symptoms women experience from a heart attack don’t happen in their chest; they happen as organs in other parts of their bodies are affected.

Women who are having a heart attack often experience lightheadedness or dizziness because the heart is not able to provide the brain with an adequate amount of oxygenated blood.

Postmenopausal women are at an increased risk of heart attacks because they have lower levels of heart-protective estrogen compared to premenopausal women. Women with age-related heart disease risk or other risk factors for heart disease – including diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, high cholesterol, or tobacco use – should consider lightheadedness or dizziness a serious symptom that requires immediate medical attention.


Fatigue is a vague but important symptom of heart disease. Studies have shown that women who have a heart attack can develop unusual fatigue up to four weeks before the heart attack happens.

If you’re suddenly fatigued by everyday activities that you used to do with ease, like climbing a flight of stairs, carrying groceries, or walking around the block, remember that fatigue can be a symptom that your heart isn’t getting enough oxygen. Women with sudden and unusual fatigue – especially if they have other risk factors of heart disease –should seek immediate medical attention that includes a comprehensive cardiac evaluation.

Increased Anxiety

When the heart is weakened by a lack of oxygen, the body responds by releasing adrenaline, a stimulant meant to make the heart contract more effectively. Adrenaline also causes a rapid heartbeat, palpitations, rapid breathing, and heightened anxiety, which is why patients who are having a heart attack sometimes feel suddenly anxious.

Also, shortly before a catastrophic event like a massive heart attack, some patients experience what’s called an “impending sense of doom,” which can feel like heightened anxiety or even a panic attack, as the subconscious senses that something dangerous is about to happen. Patients experiencing these sudden symptoms – especially if they have other risk factors for heart disease – should seek medical care to rule out a cardiac cause of their symptoms.

Shortness of Breath

Your lungs and heart work together closely to make sure your body’s cardiopulmonary system supplies the body with all the oxygenated blood it needs to function properly.

If your heart is weakened by lack of blood flow from a blocked coronary artery, it’s unable to contract with enough strength to send a sufficient amount of blood to the lungs. When this happens, patients often feel shortness of breath because their heart and their lungs are not getting enough oxygen.

Patients who experience shortness of breath – especially when they’re not exerting themselves, or when they’re doing everyday activities that didn’t make them short of breath before – should undergo a thorough cardiac evaluation to make sure they’re not experiencing symptoms of a heart attack.

The content is presented in partnership with Northwell Health-GoHealth Urgent Care centers. A version of this article was originally published on GoHealth’s Health Library and has been republished with permission given to Northwell Health.