12 cardiac symptoms women must never ignore

12 Feb

  by Carolyn Thomas    @HeartSisters

Did you know that women generally fare far worse than men after experiencing a cardiac event? One possible reason is that it can be confusing to make sense of warning symptoms when they do hit. Women are also less likely than our male counterparts to seek immediate help at the first sign of cardiac symptoms. Instead, we end up:

  • toughing them out
  • waiting to see if they go away
  • blaming them on stress, muscle soreness, indigestion or other less serious non-cardiac causes

If the following 12 potential heart attack symptoms occur – alone or in combination, and especially if they feel unusual for you, you must act immediately:  

1.  Anxiety:  take it from me, a heart attack can cause intense anxiety. Heart attack survivors often talk about having experienced an unusual “sense of impending doom” leading up their cardiac event. It can be tough to tell the difference between panic or anxiety and real cardiac symptoms.

2.  Chest discomfort:  notice the word here is ‘discomfort’, not necessarily ‘pain’. Pain in the chest is the classic symptom of the Hollywood heart attack, but not all heart attacks cause chest pain (at least 10% of women’s heart attacks, in fact, hit with absolutely no chest symptoms at all (1) – and that number in some studies is estimated as high as 42%(2).  Not all chest pain means a heart attack. Women commonly describe their chest symptoms as tightness, fullness, burning, heaviness or pressure – NOT pain.  See also: 85% of hospital admissions for chest pain are NOT heart attack

3. Cough:  persistent coughing or wheezing can be a cardiac symptom.

4. Dizziness:  heart attacks or heart rhythm abnormalities can cause light-headedness or even loss of consciousness.

5. Fatigue:  especially among women, unusual crushing fatigue can occur during a heart attack as well as in the days and weeks leading up to oneSee also: How women can tell if they’re headed for a heart attack

6. Nausea or vomiting: it’s not uncommon for women to feel sick to their stomach or vomit during a heart attack.

7. Pain in other parts of the body: pain or discomfort can begin in the chest and spread to shoulders, arms, elbows, upper back, neck, jaw, throat or abdomen.  But remember that many women experience no chest symptoms at all, or their symptoms might come and go. Men sometimes feel pain radiating down their left arm, but women are more likely to feel this in either arm or both, or in the back between the shoulder blades.

8. Rapid or irregular pulse:  there’s usually nothing worrisome about an occasional skipped heartbeat, but a rapid or irregular pulse – especially when accompanied by weakness, dizziness, or shortness of breath – can be evidence of a heart attack, heart failure, or a cardiac arrhythmia.

9. Shortness of breath:  feeling winded at rest or with minimal exertion, “like you’ve just run a marathon when you haven’t even moved”, might be a significant cardiac symptom.

10. Sweating:  breaking out in an unusual cold clammy sweat is a common sign of heart attack.

11. Swelling:  heart failure can cause fluid to accumulate in the body. This can cause swelling (often in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen) as well as sudden weight gain and sometimes a loss of appetite.

12. Weakness:  in the days leading up to a heart attack as well as during one, some people experience severe, unexplained weakness.

And as Cleveland Clinic cardiologist Dr. David Frid warns:

“The more cardiac risk factors you have, the higher the likelihood that a symptom means something is going on with your heart.

“People often don’t want to admit that they’re old enough or sick enough to have heart trouble. Putting off treatment for other medical problems might not be so bad, but a serious heart problem can mean sudden death. It’s better to go in and get it evaluated than to be dead.”

Sources: Heart and Stroke Foundation, Mayo Clinic, American Heart Association, Cleveland Clinic

VERY VERY IMPORTANT NOTE:  If you’re reading this because you’re currently experiencing troubling symptoms right now and are trying to figure out if they could be heart-related, remember this:


You know when something just does not feel right. Seek immediate medical help! It’s what you’d do if exactly the same symptoms were happening to your mother, or your daughter, or a close friend.

(1) S. Dey et al., “GRACE: Acute Coronary Syndromes: Sex-related Differences in the Presentation, Treatment and Outcomes among Patients with Acute Coronary Syndromes: the Global Registry of Acute Coronary Events”, Heart 2009; 95:1 20–26.
(2)  J. Canto et al. Association of Age and Sex With Myocardial Infarction Symptom Presentation and In-Hospital Mortality, Journal of the American Medical Association.  2012;307(8):813-822. doi:10.1001/jama.2012.199.

Please remember that I am not a physician and cannot advise you. If you have significant symptoms that are unusual for you, do not leave a comment here. Don’t hesitate to seek medical help.

I wrote more about women’s heart attack symptoms in my new book, “A Woman’s Guide to Living with Heart Disease” (Johns Hopkins University, November 2017). 

. See also:


37 Responses to “12 cardiac symptoms women must never ignore”

  1. floridawoman October 20, 2015 at 3:29 pm #

    The week of my heart attack, I tasted a metallic taste, lethargic, not sleeping well. The day of I was having pain in my chest that I will say was anxiety or panic attack that kept coming and going during my 8 hr shift. Thirty minutes after work, I had 3 sharp pains – a pain so severe it slowed my breathing and ability to talk due to lack of air and both my feet went numb, then both my hands and arm. I had no feeling, I was limp. I began to vomit. I have never found out what caused this paralysis. My muscles were weak over the next 6 months. I was stented in the lower atrium of the heart and diagnosed with no heart disease.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas October 20, 2015 at 3:41 pm #

      Hi floridawoman – anybody who has had a heart attack and had a stent implanted in a coronary artery DOES indeed have heart disease. Discuss this with your doctor so you’re completely informed about your diagnosis and procedures. Best of luck to you…


  2. Ariel October 20, 2015 at 7:49 am #

    Thanks for the info, Ms. Carolyn Thomas. =) God bless.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Ariel October 19, 2015 at 5:17 am #

    Good day. I’m 16 years old. I know you said that we should not leave a comment about our symptoms, but I just want to know your insights about my case. I’m still gonna go for check-up, don’t worry. I have this feeling of pain(coldness) between my chest. It happens like three times a week for like 5 minutes. And then it feels like the coldness(pain) moves towards my back, then going up in my throat. I don’t get it. Can I know your insights? Even if you can’t understand my explanation.


    • Carolyn Thomas October 20, 2015 at 7:01 am #

      I am not a physician, which is why I cannot offer any insights into your specific case, Ariel. Please discuss these issues with your doctor.


  4. Barbara October 1, 2015 at 6:11 pm #

    I’m a women having a lot of these symptoms. I think I may be trying to have a heart attack. I’m going to go see a doctor.

    Liked by 1 person

  5. Talitha Malebo September 30, 2015 at 9:25 pm #

    I’m a lady of 42 years who has symptoms related to signs of heart failure. Thank you for the information. Every year I experience this problem for three weeks. This my third year having this problem. Dr told me that I have heart failure and she gave me treatment for one month.


    • Carolyn Thomas October 1, 2015 at 5:00 am #

      Hello Talitha – it’s very odd that these symptoms arrive for only three weeks each year. Heart failure symptoms typically don’t simply go away for 49 weeks. Try keeping a “symptom journal” to record what else is happening in your life if/when these symptoms return (food, stress, physical activity, sleep, other medications, etc). Best of luck to you…

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Amanda September 28, 2015 at 11:23 am #

    It’s funny that one of the listed symptoms is the feeling of having a panic attack. Yet panic attacks are so varied it’s hard to tell what’s going on. I believe it’s quite unfair that women have been put off as having a mental episode rather than being taken seriously. Even a thyroid test is based on the levels of hormone production in a healthy 40 yr old male. With that said I’ve had these symptoms, I knew there was a problem, I’ve had them again this year and none of the tests show anything. At least that’s what I’ve been told. Two doctors have told me unless I’m having classic symptoms (like in a man) it’s probably just stress or my nerves.

    So how does a person get the proper testing when the medical community seems hell bent on not treating? Seeing this article for women is nice. But the real world says we’re all just basket cases.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Peter September 21, 2015 at 10:30 am #

    Good day
    I went for a test for the pain in my chest region some years ago and the result says I have paratrachea mass above the thoracic region. I was prescribed some drugs to use and also to come back for further check. I used the drug but have not be able to go for recheck. Presently, I feel a load on the left side of my chest and also shortness of breath. I feel some pinching sensation on the left arm. Do I have symptoms of heart attack?

    Thank you.


    • Carolyn Thomas September 21, 2015 at 3:30 pm #

      Peter, I’m not a physician so cannot comment on your specific case. I can advise you however to follow your doctor’s first recommendation to go back for a follow up appointment re your paratracheal mass, and to ask about these new symptoms.


  8. Helen September 13, 2015 at 3:52 am #

    It isn’t frequent but every now and again I run out of breath without moving as much. Pain in my upper back, shoulder blades, base of my neck. Other times I can’t even turn my head around. I once went to a private clinic and was diagnosed with HBP and I received treatment for 5 days. At times I also feel bloated without eating at all, just drinking water would be my meal as I would lose my appetite.


    • Carolyn Thomas September 13, 2015 at 5:10 am #

      Hello Helen – not being able to move your head is rarely a cardiac symptom. See your GP for a full checkup for such a variety of symptoms.


  9. Lorna September 11, 2015 at 4:52 am #

    I have been having severe chest pains for the past two years now.These are always coupled with dizziness, tingling sensations, fainting feeling, at some stage my legs were swelling. I have seen all sorts of specialists , cardiologists, neurologists, gynecologists, endocrinologists and have been to the ER countless times. I gave been extensively investigated through blood tests and radiology – nothing comes up. The only thing picked was vitamin D deficiency which I am taking medication for. The symptoms are all here and the doctors seem to be fed up me. I am so frustrated and the symptoms I am having are strange, severe, painful and don’t respond to anything. The doctors attribute all these to anxiety.


    • Carolyn Thomas September 11, 2015 at 5:40 am #

      Lorna, something is causing these distressing symptoms, but you just haven’t learned what that is yet. It sounds like you have been taken seriously and given every possible diagnostic test to try to solve the mystery. The reassuring news is that 85% of all patients admitted to hospital with chest pain are not having a heart attack. Meanwhile, so much of medicine is just trying to figure out what the problem is NOT. If the doctors attribute your symptoms to anxiety, are you being treated for anxiety? Best of luck to you in solving this mystery.


  10. Shinel Collins August 29, 2015 at 12:24 am #

    I’m unsure of the symptoms I’m having. Yesterday, after dropping my kids off at my mom’s house, I felt sick to my stomach and felt and instant urge to go to sleep. The fatigue was overbearing. I persistently drove myself to work. All the way there feeling very sleepy, unusual feelings in my chest (not exactly pain – more pressure), shortness of breath, and just overall feeling strange. The strangest thing was the hot and cold sensations. I wasn’t sweating, I was feeling a sensation of being hot and cold and then very cold to the point I was shivering. When I tried to get out to go into work, my balance was off and my heart started racing. I went back to my car and drove myself to the ER. My vital signs were taken but I left about 3 minutes later. The nurse and administrator told me I probably was having a panic attack. That made me upset. It wasn’t just that. They looked at me like I was drunk! After getting home and resting the rest of the day, my symptoms didn’t go away. All I’ve done is sleep. It’s 3:00 am now and I’m still tired. My blood pressure is elevated (176/108), my head hurts, and I have a pain in my right shoulder that radiates to my neck and base of my head. I’m not a fan of doctors but I know something’s not normal. I’m also having the same symptoms I was having yesterday. I have a slightly enlarged heart and high blood pressure. The cold and hot sensations are very strange. What should I do?


    • Carolyn Thomas August 29, 2015 at 1:13 pm #

      Shinel, seek medical attention right away. Something is causing your symptoms – may or may not be heart-related, but you just don’t know. And DO NOT DRIVE when you are experiencing “overbearing fatigue”. Best of luck to you…


  11. Sharon August 2, 2015 at 12:14 pm #

    I have a pace maker and for 2 days I have been having pain between my shoulder blades. The pacemaker is there in case my heart stops. I am worried, I don’t think it would help me if I have a heart attack.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas August 3, 2015 at 5:41 am #

      Hi Sharon – please see your physician if your symptoms continue. You’re right about your pacemaker – it has a very specific function to address only the electrical function of your heart. Medtronic, a major manufacturer of pacemakers and internal defibrillators, warns that cardiac devices will not prevent a heart attack (which is more like a plumbing problem, resulting from a blockage within a coronary artery that prevents oxygenated blood from feeding the heart muscle). Get this checked out right away – it could be something, it could be nothing, but right now you just don’t know yet. Best of luck to you…


  12. Betty July 16, 2015 at 6:46 am #

    I have been having sharp pains under my left breast and my left arm gets weak. I do have migraines almost all the time and it’s so “normal” for me to have abnormal pains cause the pain is always there. I was diagnosed with post-ovarian failure last year. Could this be causing all this? And one more thing, I do vomit and am nauseated most of the time. I am 29.


    • Carolyn Thomas July 16, 2015 at 4:46 pm #

      Betty, I’m not a physician so am not qualified to comment on your specific symptoms. With a number of complex symptoms (migraines, nausea/vomiting) you need to see your doctor for a comprehensive consultation to get to the bottom of this. It’s not “normal” for any 29-year old to be vomiting/nauseous “most of the time”. Best of luck to you.


  13. Natalie June 26, 2015 at 6:57 am #

    I have been having issues for 2 months now. It started April 24th. I went to the ER with chest discomfort (it felt like someone was standing on my chest). They did an EKG right away, followed by blood tests, a chest x-ray, and ultrasound. Fortunately everything was fine at the time (no signs of a heart attack ). Since then, I have been to the ER 3 more times. The next 2 visits were due to chest pain and pain and numbness in my left arm (my left arm still doesn’t feel normal). Again, all of my tests came back ‘normal’.

    Finally the last visit, I woke up feeling extremely lethargic, my head was hurting, and my heart was racing. This time my heart rate and blood pressure were pretty elevated, so they gave me a beta blocker thru an IV and this time did a CT of my heart to check my calcium score, which was zero. All good news, right? Well, I am still having the chest discomfort and the arm numbness daily.

    I forgot to also mention that I have been seeing a cardiologist since my first ER visit and they have done an echo and a regular stress test, which also came back fine. At this point I don’t know if I should just start ignoring what I’m feeling and try to move on with my life or if I should seek further testing on my heart. My insurance denied the coronary angiogram that my cardiologist requested, but fortunately I have the means to pay for the test myself. Do you think I should?


    • Carolyn Thomas June 26, 2015 at 7:12 am #

      Natalie, I can’t advise you what to do next as I’m not a physician. Your symptoms may or may not be heart-related at all – it sounds like nobody knows right now, and it’s entirely possible that even if you do pay for your angio, it may well be “normal” as well. Many people try keeping a symptom journal to record not only symptoms, but time of day, activity both in the hours before and at the time the symptoms hit, diet, sleep, stress, exercise – all factors that may help point to a pattern that might help explain the source of the symptoms and solve the mystery. So much of medicine is just figuring out what’s NOT the problem. But no matter what is causing these issues, YES, you must “move on with your life” anyway because the alternative is to stay paralyzed by focusing on what may or may not be heart-related. Also remember that 85% of all people hospitalized for chest pain end up not having heart issues after all. Best of luck to you…


  14. sbonokuhle May 17, 2015 at 5:24 am #

    Thanks for this column, I’ve learned a lot. I think I’m having a heart attack because of the symptoms I’ve read about. It’s been 2 months now. There is pain under my left breast, side of the breast, sometimes under the arm, and burning stabbing pains in my chest and back. This pain comes and goes….past few days I developed tingling sensation on my left hand, fingers and painful wrist, and a headache. Don’t know what’s wrong with me……went to the Dr gave me Propranolol, omeprazole, hyoscine….will finish the medication tomorrow…..but it’s not getting better.


    • Carolyn Thomas May 17, 2015 at 5:48 am #

      I’m not a physician so of course cannot comment on your specific symptoms, but the three meds your doctor has prescribed are generally recommended for high blood pressure, indigestion and spasm. Please call your physician for a follow-up appointment. Right now your symptoms may or may not be heart-related at all – but you need to find out what’s been bothering you for two months.


  15. Ed May 10, 2015 at 3:06 am #

    Last Wednesday I had a feeling of constriction in my chest which didn’t clear. I woke up at 4:30 and spent 2 hours trying to man up, while googling trying to do so I read this page which caused me to phone up the UK’s NHS24 helpline. An ambulance was summoned and 40 minutes after starting the call I was in emergency admissions being triaged. My ECG was textbook but blood tests showed I had had a heart attack and had to have 2 stents fitted.

    Thank you.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Carolyn Thomas May 10, 2015 at 3:17 am #

      So glad you called for help, Ed – hope you are now feeling better day by day.


  16. Gwenny Young August 2, 2014 at 9:07 am #

    I just started having slight pain under my left chest..what’s that mean?


    • Carolyn Thomas August 2, 2014 at 12:30 pm #

      Gwenny, I’m not a physician so cannot address your specific case. Right now, that pain may or may not have anything to do with your heart. If symptoms persist, ask your doctor about them.


  17. Clark March 1, 2010 at 5:24 am #

    I never realised how stressed I was until recently, and came across your site on Google. This list is interesting and helpful. I will mark your site and come back. Thank you!!

    Liked by 1 person

  18. Sydney deG. February 22, 2010 at 10:58 am #

    It’s a pretty comprehensive list and has some surprises that I never actually expected to even consider as being heart-related.

    This is so awesome that you are helping to raise awareness of these little-known symptoms and also other important info about women and heart attacks. Thanx!

    Liked by 1 person

  19. Jill J. February 13, 2010 at 1:36 am #

    My gosh on any given day I have 8 of these symptoms and that’s when everything is NORMAL! This list is enough for any hypochondriac to check into hospital permanently! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  20. K.P. February 12, 2010 at 11:27 am #

    Thank you for this list. Its so important to remember that the “HollyWood Heart AttacK” may not represent the reality for many women.

    My own heart attack last summer was preceded by upper back pain ONLY. No chest pain, no discomfort, nothing but what I assumed was a sprained muscle while gardening. Thank goodness I listened to my sister who demanded that I call 911 when this “sprain” begain to get worse and worse over a few days.

    I cannot say this strongly enough: CALL 911 when you experience symptoms that are unusual or weird FOR YOU.


  21. Dmadscientist February 12, 2010 at 9:18 am #

    Nicely done, Sis!

    Liked by 1 person


  1. Judith Westerfield - November 5, 2017

    […] Read 12 cardiac symptoms women must never ignore …[…]


  2. Health News - February 15, 2010

    We have put a link to this article from our website […] 12 heart attack symptoms you must never ignore « Heart Sisters […]


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: