Signs of a Heart Attack For Women

Jan O'Hara headshot.JPG

Jan O’Hara, WHNP

Let me introduce you to Jan O’Hara who is a Women's Health Nurse Practitioner at Vickery Family Medicine and is also the owner of Asheville Childbirth Education where she teaches birthing classes. Jan enjoys educating women about the incredible experience of childbirth and the female body.

To celebrate Women’s Health Month, Jan has written a few digestible blog posts about women’s health that I would love to share with you.

- Dr. Gus Vickery, M.D.


A heart attack strikes someone about every 40 seconds in the United States, and more than 200,000 women die each year from a heart attack, which is 5 times as many women that die from breast cancer.

This whopping number is due to a multitude of factors, one being that most women are unaware of how a heart attack affects their bodies.

You may not know, but when it comes to how a woman experiences a heart attack, there are a few subtle—and not so subtle—differences you need to be aware of.

Why Does a Heart Attack Occur?

When the flow of blood to the heart is blocked, most often from a buildup of fat, cholesterol, and other substances, a heart attack can occur.

Some of the risk factors for a heart attack are unavoidable, such as your age—the older you are, the higher your risk—and your family history. But you can control some of the risk factors, such as smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, unhealthy weight, diabetes, stress, and recreational drug use.

What Are Common Symptoms?

Most people who have a heart attack will usually experience:

  1. Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain in the center of your chest.

  2. Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach.

  3. Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

  4. Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea, or lightheadedness.

While the most common symptom for both men and women is chest pain or discomfort, studies have shown that’s where the commonalities stop. Below are a few differences for women when it comes to heart attacks.

1. Women are more likely to experience symptoms other than chest pain.

While chest pain is common with a heart attack, women can actually experience a heart attack without chest pressure. This goes against the “Hollywood heart attack” where you clutch your chest and experience enormous pressure.

Women are actually more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea, back or jaw pain, dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting, or extreme fatigue.

Just because you don’t feel like an elephant is sitting on your chest does not mean you aren’t experiencing a heart attack.

2. Women can sometimes mistake a heart attack for less life-threatening conditions.

Because women usually experience the subtler symptoms of a heart attack, many disregard their symptoms and ignore what they’re experiencing. You might think you  just have acid reflux or are coming down with a case of the flu. You might even think, “Oh, this is just a sign of normal aging.”

Just listen to your body; it’s trying to tell you something is wrong.

3. Women typically take longer than men to call for help when experiencing a heart attack.

Be aware of the risk factors and symptoms, and if you ever think there’s even a slim chance you could be having a heart attack, do not hesitate to call 911. You don’t need to apologize for bothering them. You do not need to downplay your symptoms.

Do not delay your emergency care for any reason whatsoever—heart disease can strike anyone, anytime.


Jan O’Hara received her BS in Biology and Ecology from Emory University in 1994. She completed her Master’s in the Science of Nursing in 1999 at Vanderbilt University. Jan has worked in a variety of settings including spending one year doing volunteer work in Honduras. Jan and her family have lived in Asheville since 2004. She enjoys trail running, outdoor activities and live music.