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Heart disease is the #1 killer of women in the U.S. Learning the difference in symptoms could help save a life.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is interrupted or cut off completely, depriving the heart of critical oxygen. Heart attacks look different for men and women, and women are less likely to experience traditional symptoms. 

The most common symptom of a heart attack is mild or strong pain in the center of the chest. This discomfort may last for several minutes, or it may come and go. But chest pain isn’t the only symptom. In fact, you might not have chest pain at all.

Symptoms: what to look for 

“Chest pain may not always be present with a heart attack,” says Dr. Eva Vaishnav, a cardiologist at Geisinger. “Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath, weakness, dizziness or back or jaw pain.”

  • Here are some other heart attack signs in women:
  • Indigestion or heartburn
  • Pain in the neck, shoulders or throat
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Breaking out into a cold sweat
  • Stomach pain
  • Feeling lightheaded

“Some women do have symptoms, but they’re often so mild that they just don't recognize them as coming from their heart," Dr. Vaishnav says. 

A different kind of heart attack 

If you experience mild symptoms, they may be caused by a silent heart attack. These heart attacks are less likely to cause symptoms. Often, you may not know you’ve had one until days or even weeks later.
 
They’re more common in women, particularly women under 65. 
 
To identify whether you’ve had one, your doctor may perform an electrocardiogram, also called an EKG or ECG. This non-invasive test uses small sensors attached to your chest and arms to record your heart’s electrical activity.
 
If testing does detect a silent heart attack, your doctor may suggest treatments like medication or cardiac rehab.
 

Heart attack or something else?

 Although a heart attack may be the first thing that comes to mind, other common medical conditions can cause similar symptoms. 
 
Dr. Vaishnav notes these conditions can mimic a heart attack:
  • Musculoskeletal pain
  • Gastroesophageal reflux disease
  • Esophageal spasm
  • Pulmonary embolism
  • Emotional stress
 
If you are experiencing symptoms, even minor ones, talk to your doctor or head to the nearest emergency room. 
 
“We’d much rather you get checked and be fine,” Dr. Vaishnav says.
 

Lowering your risk 

Staying heart healthy is easier than you might realize. Here are a few ways to get started.

  • Avoid smoking. Need help quitting? Talk to your healthcare provider about a smoking cessation program.
  • Eat a balanced diet. Include fiber-rich foods, fruits and veggies, low-fat dairy and lean proteins.
  • Exercise regularly. Choose moderate-intensity activity like brisk walking, lifting weights or swimming 30 minutes a day, 5 days a week. Can’t get to the gym? Try these simple home workouts.
  • Maintain a healthy weight. 
  • Limit alcohol use. If you drink, stick to one per day, maximum (12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of liquor)
  • Manage blood pressure. Having untreated high blood pressure can put you at a higher risk of having a heart attack. Not sure how to keep it under control? Start by talking with your provider.

They can create a plan to help you manage your blood pressure. And, if needed, your doctor can help you lower your cholesterol.

“Making a few lifestyle changes can reduce your risk of having a heart attack and improve your overall health,” Dr. Vaishnav suggests. 

Before you embark on any lifestyle changes, talk to your healthcare provider. They can work with you to create a customized plan to provide the specialized care your heart needs.

 

Next steps:

Meet Eva Vaishnav, DO

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