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Heart Disease

Information, Symptoms, Treatments and Resources


Could You Spot a Heart Attack?


Learn the warning signs of a major cardiovascular event


By Eirish Sison


You may think you know what a heart attack looks and feels like — we're used to seeing movies where someone who has a heart attack clutches their chest and falls to the ground. But most heart attacks don't come on so suddenly or dramatically. The symptoms can be much subtler — so subtle that you may be tempted to simply brush them off or wait them out. However, being able to recognize the first signs of a heart attack and calling for help as soon as possible can help prevent permanent damage, or even death. Here are the different symptoms that men and women should watch out for.

A heart attack is caused by a clot blocking the flow of blood through an artery in your heart. For reasons not yet fully understood, the symptoms of a heart attack that men experience can differ considerably from those of women. Symptoms can even vary by episode: If you've had a heart attack before, your symptoms won't necessarily be the same if you experience one again. But by knowing the general umbrella of symptoms and knowing that they can vary by individual, you can help yourself or someone else get treatment fast.


Heart attack warning signs in men

Men who experience some or all of these symptoms may be having a heart attack:

  • Angina, or sudden chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw, or upper part of the stomach
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Anxiety
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat


Heart attack warning signs in women

Many people think of heart attacks are more commonly a men's health issue, but according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute, nearly half of the people who die from heart attacks are women. Heart attack symptoms in women usually differ from men's, even though men's symptoms (like chest pain) are often touted as the most common sign of a heart attack.

These are some of the symptoms that may signal a heart attack for women:

Prior to the heart attack

  • Unusual fatigue
  • Changes in sleep patterns
  • Shortness of breath
  • Indigestion
  • Anxiety

During the heart attack

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain in the upper back, shoulder, jaw, or chest
  • Lightheadedness
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Cold sweat
  • Dizziness


What to do if you think you're having a heart attack

If you experience the symptoms above for 5 minutes or longer, take action immediately.

  • Call 911 first, not a friend or family member. Emergency medical technicians can usually arrive with potentially life-saving first aid measures faster than it would take to drive to the nearest hospital.
  • Chew and swallow an aspirin. This can help prevent damage to the heart tissue by keeping the clot from growing.
  • Sit down, loosen any tight clothing and try to keep calm.
  • Have someone wait for the ambulance with you. They can perform CPR if symptoms worsen and you fall unconscious.


Published on February 7, 2012.

Eirish Sison is a health writer and science enthusiast living in San Francisco.


Reviewed by Joseph Sclafani, MD on April 10, 2015.
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