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Heart attack symptoms in women: when to call the hospital

A heart attack occurs when the heart is deprived of oxygen because one of the coronary arteries that supplies oxygen-rich blood to the heart is blocked. The longer that the artery is blocked, the greater the damage to the heart. The heart muscle can start to die when deprived of oxygen, and it can be permanently damaged if blood flow is not quickly restored.

Seek emergency medical help or go to hospital immediately if you, or someone you know, is experiencing symptoms of a heart attack. The earlier that the heart attack and its cause are treated, the better the chance of survival.

Common heart attack symptoms in women

There are various symptoms of heart attack that can be experienced individually or in combination. The most common heart attack symptoms are:

  • chest pain, pressure or an aching sensation in the chest or arms that can spread to the neck, jaw or back
  • shortness of breath or breathing difficulties
  • nausea or vomiting
  • heartburn, indigestion or abdominal pain
  • light-headedness or sudden dizziness
  • feeling faint or anxious
  • cold sweats
  • fatigue.

Heart pain for women can be different than in men

The most common heart attack symptom for both women and men is intermittent chest pain or pressure, or chest pain or pressure that lasts for a few minutes.

However, this heart pain can be different in women than in men. Women often describe heart attack pain as pressure or tightness in the chest, and not the severe pain often felt by men.

Female chest pain

Female chest pain is commonly misinterpreted or dismissed because women do not expect a heart attack. It’s important to be aware that this chest pain could indicate a heart attack.

Seek medical help immediately if the chest pain continues or is accompanied by other heart disease symptoms such as:

  • discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
  • breathlessness and a general feeling of unwellness
  • pain, tightness or discomfort in one or both arms
  • nausea or vomiting
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • sweating
  • light-headedness or dizziness
  • unusual fatigue.

Heart attack in women: a leading cause of death in NZ

More than 3,000 New Zealand women die from a heart attack each year.

CVDs like heart attack are the number one killer of New Zealand women, killing more than 55 women every week.

Pre-heart attack warning signs for women

The most common pre-heart attack warning sign for women is chest pain or discomfort. This can last for a few minutes or come and go. This sensation is often described by women as pressure or tightness in the chest. It is often not as severe or noticeable as in men who experience this same pre-heart attack warning sign.

Other warning signs that can occur pre-heart attack include:

  • discomfort in the neck, jaw, shoulder, upper back or abdomen
  • breathlessness and a general feeling of unwellness
  • pain, tightness or discomfort in one or both arms
  • nausea or vomiting
  • heartburn or indigestion
  • sweating
  • light-headedness or dizziness
  • unusual fatigue.

If you experience any of these pre-heart attack warning signs, seek medical help immediately.

What can women do to prevent a heart attack?

To help prevent heart attack and cardiovascular disease (CVD), it’s important to see your doctor regularly for heart health checks. The earlier that CVD is detected, the earlier that it can be treated and managed, perhaps preventing a more severe incident like heart attack.

Con­tact emer­gency ser­vices imme­di­ate­ly if you sus­pect a heart attack.

During a heart health check, your doctor will consider a number of factors to determine your overall risk of CVD. These include lifestyle risk factors, such as high cholesterol levels and whether you smoke, as well as family history of CVD, ethnicity, age and gender, and any other health conditions that you may have.

Your doctor will then advise you of any interventions you can take to reduce your risk.

Simple steps for women to prevent a heart attack

There are simple steps women can take to help prevent a heart attack and CVD.

Donate for women’s heart attack research

Heart attack is a leading cause of death in women, and globally, over 15 million people die every year from heart attack or stroke.

The mission of the Heart Research Institute (HRI) is to prevent death and suffering from CVDs such as heart attack. Our groundbreaking cardiovascular research is fighting the devastating impact heart attack can have on women, their families and loved ones.

Over 70 per cent of the funding for our crucial work comes from donors. With this vital support, our scientists can continue pioneering life-saving heart research.

How is HRI fighting heart attack in women?

HRI is conducting innovative research to develop new therapies for detecting, preventing and treating heart attacks and other CVDs.

Our Coronary Diseases Group is investigating whether the anti-inflammatory drug colchicine can be repurposed to protect against repeat heart attacks. This drug has already proved safe and effective for treating conditions like arthritis and gout. A collaboration between the Coronary Disease Group and our Clinical Research Group has also discovered that the heart releases certain substances during a heart attack that can be detected in the laboratory.

Our Thrombosis Group is undertaking research to understand how blood clots, which can block arteries and lead to heart attack and stroke, form in healthy individuals. This work is crucial for developing safer and more effective treatments for heart attacks and other CVDs.

Our Cardiovascular Medical Devices Group is using cutting-edge bioengineering techniques to develop a new generation of medical devices to reduce the risk of dangerous thrombosis (blood clotting that can lead to heart attack and stroke) during surgeries such as heart bypasses.

References

  1. Heart Foundation; Women and heart disease www.heartfoundation.org.nz/your-heart/women-and-heart-disease

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