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.

“Women, as compared to men, tend to minimize the severity of their symptoms until they progress to a dangerous level,” Dr. Hedgepeth says, noting that they’ll assume a less life-threatening condition like acid reflux, the flu or normal aging is the culprit.

One woman recently chronicled her heart attack – and the surprise she felt when she realized what it was – in a blog posted on the New York Times website.

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.

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.

For more information, please visit carenewengland.org/cardiology