The myth of the “Hollywood Heart Attack” for women

Of course you know what a heart attack looks like:
  • The victim stops what they’re doing.
  • Their eyes open wide.
  • They clutch their chest, make some funny noises, and then they collapse to the floor. Right?

Wrong. (Don’t believe everything you see on TV!)  That scenario describes sudden cardiac arrest, not heart attack. The two are not the same thing at all. The heart attack awareness campaign called “Make The Call – Don’t Miss a Beat” tells us how symptoms of the classic  “Hollywood Heart Attack” can differ from the actual reality for most women.  

A 2009 survey suggests that only half of women studied indicated they would call 911 if they thought they were having a heart attack (that’s down from 80% just five years ago!) and few were even aware of the most common heart attack symptoms.This campaign urges women to know these symptoms, and then to call 911 immediately.

In reality, heart attacks in women are often much tougher to spot. That’s why it’s important to know what these signs and symptoms look like – knowing how to spot them in yourself or in those around you can mean the difference between life and death.

Know the Symptoms

The first step toward surviving a heart attack is learning to recognize the common symptoms, which include one or more of the following symptoms if they feel unusual for you:

  • Unusually heavy pressure on the chest, like there’s a ton of weight on you

    Most heart attacks involve chest pain or discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. It usually lasts for more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back. It can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, heaviness, or pain. It may even feel like heartburn or indigestion.  But remember that about 40% of women experience no chest symptoms at all during a heart attack.

  • Upper body pain in the neck, back or jaw

    This symptom can include pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or upper part of stomach (not below the belly button). Pain in the back, neck or jaw is a more common heart attack symptom for women than it is for men.

  • Severe shortness of breath

    This symptom can come on suddenly. It may occur while you are at rest or with minimal physical activity. You may struggle to breathe or try taking deep breaths. Shortness of breath may start before or at the same time as chest pain or discomfort, and can even be your only symptom.

  • Cold sweats – and you know it’s not menopause

    Unexplained or excessive sweating, or breaking out into a “cold sweat,” can be a sign of heart attack.

  • Unusual or unexplained fatigue (tiredness)

    Sudden and unusual tiredness or lack of energy is one of the most common symptoms of heart attack in women, and one of the easiest to ignore. It can come on suddenly or be present for days. More than half of women having a heart attack experience muscle tiredness or weakness that is not related to exercise.

  • Unfamiliar dizziness or light-headedness

    Unlike in the movies, most heart attacks do not make you pass out right away. Instead, you may suddenly feel dizzy or light-headed.

  • Unexplained nausea (feeling sick to the stomach) or vomiting

    Women are twice as likely as men to experience nausea, vomiting, or indigestion during their heart attack. These feelings are often written off as having a less serious cause. Remember, nausea and vomiting may be signs that something is seriously wrong, especially if you have other cardiac symptoms.

  • An unshakeable sense of impending doom

If you have any one or more of these symptoms, lasting for more than five minutes, call 911 for emergency medical care. Even if your symptoms go away in less than five minutes, or go away and come back much later, call your doctor right away—it could be a sign that a heart attack is coming soon. Don’t waste time trying home remedies or waiting for the feelings to pass on their own. Remember, quick treatment can save your life.

Source: U.S. Department of Health & Human Services National Women’s Health Information

See also:


Q:  Were there any surprises on this list of women’s heart attack signs?

4 thoughts on “The myth of the “Hollywood Heart Attack” for women

  1. I wish to express thanks to the writer. Thanks very much for this helpful guide. I will definitely refer your site HEART SISTERS to any person who needs guidelines about women and heart disease.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I really like this campaign – if enough media outlets pick up this PSA series, it could really wake women up about when to call 911. Thanks for sharing this with all of us. I’m forwarding this link on to my friends and family members.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. No doubt the typical heart attack is atypical. Except for the approximately 1/3 of coronary patients whose first sign is sudden death, the rest often present with symptoms easily confused with other problems. EKG is the baseline of emergency room evaluation.

    Liked by 1 person

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