Am I having a heart attack?

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

Warning signs for a heart attack:

  • an abrupt change in how you feel
  • atypical pain, discomfort, pressure, heaviness, burning, tightness or fullness in the chest, left or right arms, upper back, shoulder, neck, throat, jaw or abdomen. Symptoms may come on and then go away, and come back again. Chest pain may be central, or felt “armpit to armpit”; in about 40% of women, no chest symptoms at all are present. (1)
  • weakness, fainting, light-headedness, or extreme/unusual fatigue
  • shortness of breath, difficulty breathing
  • restlessness, insomnia or anxiety
  • bluish colour or numbness in lips, hands or feet
  • nausea, vomiting
  • clammy sweats (or sweating that’s out of proportion to your level of exertion or environment
  • persistent dry barking cough
  • a sense of impending doom

Not all of these signs occur in every heart attack.  Pay attention if these signs come on suddenly or feel unusual for you. Sometimes they go away and then return. They usually come on with exertion, but may also appear when you’re at rest. Women typically wait longer than men to call for helpFind out why.

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LISTEN to your body.  DON’T IGNORE symptoms.  GET HELP fast.

Women often experience other ‘non-classic’ symptoms that are not typically associated with heart attacks – symptoms that can appear weeks before the actual cardiac event. An Oregon study found that up to 95% of women experience early warning signals (prodromal symptoms) weeks or even months leading up to their cardiac event. Researchers reported that female heart attack survivors often reported these symptoms weeks before their attacks:

  • 70% reported severe, unexplained fatigue
  • 48%  had sleep disturbances
  • Almost half had shortness of breath, indigestion and anxiety
  • Almost half had no chest symptoms

During the attack:

  • 50%  had shortness of breath and weakness
  • 50%  had extreme fatigue, cold sweats and dizziness

Despite these findings, the Heart & Stroke Foundation notes that chest pain is still the most common warning sign in both sexes, affecting about 60% of all heart attack patients.

What to do if you’re having these symptoms:

  • immediately call 911 and say: “I think I’m having a heart attack!”  Do not apologize for bothering them. Do not self-diagnose by saying something like: “It’s probably just a pulled muscle, indigestion, stress…”  etc.
  • chew one full-strength uncoated aspirin tablet (with water if you like) while you’re waiting for the ambulance. NOTE: Some people are allergic to aspirin, or have a non-allergic sensitivity to aspirin. If you’re one of these people, skip this step.
  • unless absolutely unavoidable, do not drive yourself to the hospital – and do not ask a friend or family member to drive you there.

See also:

  • Learn more about signs and symptoms of women’s heart attacks from The Heart Truth, the Heart & Stroke Foundation’s campaign to educate women about heart disease

If you or somebody you know has been diagnosed with heart disease, you can join the free online support group hosted by WomenHeart: The National Coalition For Women With Heart Disease.


(1)  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.


Updated September 21, 2016

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