The heart in a woman’s body is essentially the same muscle as that in a man, but when she has a heart attack, the symptoms can be completely different. This distinction is critical since cardiovascular diseases are the most common cause of death in women in the United States.

“Women are less likely to have typical angina or to describe their symptoms in the same fashion as men. They’ll more commonly use terms like ‘sharp’ or ‘burning’ to describe their chest discomfort,” notes Chester M. Hedgepeth III, MD, PhD, executive chief of cardiology at Care New England.

Chest pain in women, he continues, more often radiates to the back or jaw. Women also tend to report fatigue and shortness of breath instead of chest discomfort.

Even when the signs are subtle, however, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the individual does not get help right away.

In addition to chest pain, the following can be more consistent with signs of a heart attack in women:

  • Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of the chest that can last more than a few minutes or goes away and comes back.
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat.
  • Nausea.
  • Lightheadedness.

“Women having any of these signs should call for help and get to a hospital immediately,” Dr. Hedgepeth says.

Learn More

Staff from the Center for Primary Care at Women & Infants Hospital were interviewed for a web-exclusive Q&A on women’s heart health that provides more information on the differences between men and women.

Please visit the Brigham and Women’s Cardiovascular Associates at Care New England for more information.