February 14th, 2017

Women and Heart Attacks: When to Call 911

women and heart attacks

Heart disease is the No. 1 killer of women. Yet there is still a misconception that heart attacks are primarily a man’s issue.

Different heart symptoms, but just as serious
One reason for the misconception may be that women’s heart attack symptoms can be different—and often, much more subtle—than men’s. And that difference can lead both women, and sometimes even their doctors, to discount heart problems as something less serious.

“Women frequently put off seeking medical attention because they don’t realize that something serious is happening, and they worry about going to the hospital and being told there’s nothing wrong with them,” says Christina McDowell, M.D., FACC, Sentara Cardiology Specialists. “Some of the symptoms could be written off as heartburn or anxiety.”

Warning signs of heart attack in women
The classic—and hard to miss—heart attack symptom is a sharp pain or pressure in the chest that radiates down your left arm. “And many women experience that as their main symptom, just as men do,” says McDowell. The difference is that women are more likely than men to suffer a heart attack while experiencing more easily dismissed symptoms. These can include:

  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Dizziness
  • Pain in the back, shoulder blade or jaw
  • Extreme shortness of breath
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Heartburn
  • Feeling anxious, cold and clammy

When to call 911
“If there’s even a possibility you might be having a heart attack, do not try to drive yourself to the hospital,” warns McDowell. “You could pass out while driving and injure yourself or others.” In the midst of a severe heart attack dangerous or even fatal heart rhythms can occur so resist the urge to drive or have a family member transport you to the hospital.

For safety’s sake, call for an ambulance. By calling an ambulance instead of having someone drive you or driving yourself, you will begin to receive treatment sooner. Emergency medical staff in the ambulance can begin treating your symptoms as soon as they arrive, which is important during a heart attack since even minutes can make a difference.

  • Combinations of symptoms: If you’re experiencing any of the symptoms above, especially in combination, that’s reason enough to go to the hospital.
  • Timing of symptoms: Symptoms that wax and wane or any symptoms or pain that worsens is a trigger to get help.
  • Take an aspirin: Before you get to the hospital (or before an ambulance arrives), chewing an aspirin can help get that medicine quickly into your bloodstream.

“The quicker you seek medical attention, the better you’ll do overall,” says McDowell. “When it comes to your heart, time is critical, so fast treatment can save your heart muscle and your life.”

Read more about heart attack, including signs, symptoms and treatments.