Almost everyone knows the classic signs of a heart attack: chest pain or discomfort, pain that spreads into the arms, neck, back, jaw or teeth, and shortness of breath. More recently, additional potential symptoms have been emphasized, including stomach pain, heartburn, anxiety, lightheadedness, sweating, nausea or vomiting. The truth is that women are far more likely to experience these less-familiar symptoms than men are, so they need to be even more aware that even without the better-known symptoms they may, indeed, be experiencing a heart attack.

Heart attacks are not always sudden, especially in women. They can start slowly, causing only mild pain or discomfort which may come and go over several hours. In fact, women often do not experience actual chest pain or pressure at all when having a heart attack and are far more likely to experience one or more of the following symptoms.

  1. Pain in the shoulders, back or jaw. Women tend to write off pain or explain it away as due to stress, work or exercise. But if you experience sudden or unexplained pain, it’s important to pay attention – and seek medical attention if it intensifies or continues.
  2. Shortness of breath. Even if you don’t feel actual chest discomfort, shortness of breath may well indicate that you are having a heart attack or suffering from heart disease. Like angina, or chest pain, shortness of breath is one of the most common indicators of both conditions. If you experience either of these symptoms frequently or for an extended period of time, it is imperative that you consult with your doctor.
  3. Heartburn or stomach pain. The pain and discomfort from a heart attack can feel very similar to heartburn and is too often written off by women as just that. Pay attention to your body, and if you experience intense or ongoing stomach pain that doesn’t respond to antacids or seems unusual, consider the possibility that you are having a heart attack.
  4. Nausea and/or vomiting. Many women feel sick to their stomach and even vomit when experiencing a heart attack. If you have had your flu shot and haven’t been exposed to anyone who has been ill, you need to be aware that these symptoms can be heart-attack related.
  5. Fatigue and/or tiredness. It’s normal to feel tired after an intense workout or a busy day, but a general sense of ongoing fatigue, unexplained exhaustion, or an unusually intense feeling of weakness or lethargy is something you need to pay attention to. Again, it may well be a symptom of a heart attack.

Too often, women shrug off these symptoms as illness, acid reflux or normal signs of aging when, in fact, they are indications of heart disease or a heart attack. The bottom line is that any time you experience new, unexplained, unusually intense or combined symptoms, you should always err on the side of caution. Take an aspirin and contact a medical practitioner as soon as possible.

If you think there is any chance that you are actually experiencing a heart attack, call 911 immediately. When it comes to heart attacks, it is far better to be safe than sorry.