5 Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

Man holding chest in pain

Not all heart problems come with clear warning signs. Maybe it starts with the vague sense that you’re just not feeling well: Stomach pain, nausea, shortness of breath, an uncomfortable feeling in your chest. You’re tempted to dismiss these symptoms. Maybe it’s just the flu. You’ll deal with it later — after work, dinner, and the other tasks on your list of to-dos.

Think again. These symptoms should not be ignored. They are warning signs of a heart attack.

Heart disease — including heart attack — is the leading cause of death in both men and women in the US. But there are differences in how men and women experience a heart attack. This can make a huge difference in whether you recognize it and seek treatment.

Here’s what you should know about the signs of a heart attack and how they may differ in men and women.

Spotting the 5 Warning Signs of a Heart Attack

When you have a heart attack, part of your heart muscle suddenly becomes blocked, preventing the heart from getting the oxygen-rich blood it needs to function. Timely treatment is critical. Without it, the blocked heart muscle is at risk for permanent damage the longer blood flow remains cut off.

This is why knowing the signs of a heart attack — and taking them seriously — is so important.

Any combination of these symptoms should be taken seriously. The first step should be to call 9-1-1.People who call 9-1-1 for a heart attack typically receive emergency medical services much faster than those who drive to the hospital. And getting treatment ASAP is critical when a person is having a heart attack.

signs of a heart attack

How Men and Women Experience Heart Attacks Differently?

Chest pain is the most common sign of a heart attack in both men and women. But, in some cases, that is where the similarities end.

Women are more likely than men to experience shortness of breath, back or jaw pain, nausea, and vomiting. This may be why some women who have a heart attack initially dismiss their symptoms as signs of the flu or some other less scary illnesses.

Complicating matters further is the fact that women are more likely than men to have what are known as silent heart attacks.

Silent Heart Attacks Explained

In some cases, heart attack symptoms are less obviously cardiac-related. These are called silent heart attacks, and they are just as serious as heart attacks with more noticeable signs.

A silent heart attack is still a heart attack — meaning blood flow to a section of the heart is blocked off, putting it at risk for damage if not treated.

Symptoms of a silent heart attack can be quite wide-ranging and may include:

  • Indigestion, heartburn
  • Unexplained excessive fatigue
  • Discomfort similar to a muscle strain in the upper abdomen, back, or jaw
  • Lightheadedness
  • Shortness of breath

Preventing Heart Attacks

Of course, it’s always a good idea to take steps toward preventing a heart attack in the first place. While some risk factors cannot be controlled — age and family history of heart disease, for instance — others are manageable.

Staying on top of other health issues — such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and diabetes — can go a long way toward lowering your risk of heart attack.

And many lifestyle changes to prevent heart attack are quick enough that they can be worked into your everyday routine:

  • Working on healthier eating habits — it’s all about fruits, veggies and lean proteins
  • Incorporating more activity into your day, such as walking or taking the stairs 
  • Keeping your stress levels in check by doing a few minutes of deep breathing
  • Limiting alcohol
  • Quitting smoking, for goodness sake

Not sure if you are at risk for a heart attack or other heart health issues? Penn Medicine’s online assessment can get you started.

If you already have a heart condition or disease, Penn Medicine’s Heart and Vascular team is here to support you in your journey toward heart health.

About this Blog

The Penn Heart and Vascular blog provides the latest information on heart disease prevention, nutrition and breakthroughs in cardiovascular care.


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