Heart Attack Symptoms Can Be More Subtle for Women

University of Ottawa Heart Institute

A woman experiencing back pain

The signs of a heart attack in women can be much less obvious than the dramatic chest-clutching that doctors call the “Hollywood heart attack.”

Between one-quarter and one-half of heart attacks in women go unrecognized because their symptoms differ from the classic symptoms traditionally found in men.

Because their experience may not match the stereotype of someone in cardiac distress, women themselves don’t always connect their back pain or fatigue to heart disease or a heart attack. 

If you think you or someone else may be having a heart attack, call 911 right away!

It’s important to know these symptoms of heart attack in women and to take them seriously if they appear in you or someone you love.

Early warning signs of an impending heart attack

  • Fatigue: A significant change in energy level, something out of the norm that lasts more than a few days. Unusual fatigue is the single most common long-term symptom for women.
  • Sleep difficulties: Trouble falling asleep or waking up in the night more than usual, often because of an ache or pain that won’t let you sleep.
  • Shortness of breath: Becoming winded doing the most basic activities, but especially during exercise.
  • Indigestion: Feeling uncomfortably full soon after eating, sometimes with pain or burning in the upper abdomen.
  • Chest discomfort: It may be mild discomfort or it may seem like indigestion.
  • Anxiety: Feeling nervous or apprehensive for no apparent reason or more than usual.

Other, less-common symptoms for women can include pain or discomfort in the shoulder area, headaches that are more frequent or more severe, dizziness and blurred vision.

Immediate symptoms of a heart attack

In addition to the early warning signs, these are the symptoms women most commonly report experiencing immediately before or during a heart attack:

  • Chest pain: While men often report a crushing or stabbing pain in their chest, many women feel pressure, tightness or aching in their chest or back.
  • Fatigue: More than feeling tired, this overwhelming fatigue makes it hard to do anything.
  • Breathing difficulties: It can suddenly become a struggle to take a full breath.
  • Radiating pain: Pain spreads across the jaw, arm, or shoulder or radiates across the back.

Less common immediate symptoms in women include:

  • Cold sweat: Suddenly sweating even though your skin is cool. Some women also report feeling flushed or going red in the face.
  • Nausea: Feeling queasy for no apparent reason. May be accompanied by vomiting.
  • Dizziness: Feeling lightheaded or woozy.


Learn More

Visit the University of Ottawa Heart Institute website to learn more about heart attacks.