When we lost our beloved General Leia and Carrie Fisher last year to heart attack complications, we were reminded how serious heart health is for women everywhere. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, heart disease is the number one killer of women in America. One in every four women who passed away in 2013 died from a heart attack. We can’t afford to lose anymore of our mothers, sisters, and friends, so we have to educate ourselves on this major health issue to prevent it from happening to anyone else.
One of the reasons heart attacks are so deadly among women is because we haven’t been well educated on what the signs of a heart attack even are. Additionally, our society tends to think about heart attacks as a men’s issue, and the signs of a heart attack are different in men and women. That means a lot of women are unaware of what their heart attack symptoms would even look like, leaving them vulnerable and potentially in harm’s way. You’re especially at a higher risk for a heart attack if heart disease runs in your family.
Here are seven signs you’re having a heart attack and should go to a hospital ASAP.
1. Pressure or pain in your chest
This is the most common sign of a heart attack in both men and women, but many women mistake this for nothing more than a symptom of stress. The medical term for this chest pain is angina, and it happens when your heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood. According to the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute, angina shows up in women when they’re doing everyday tasks, like running errands, commuting to work, or cleaning the kitchen.
Although it’s a very common of a heart attack, angina may not always be excruciatingly painful, which is why so many women write it off as something minor. But the second you feel a tightness or pressure in your chest, you need to call an ambulance.
2. Stomach flu symptoms
Strangely enough, a sign of a heart attack in women is feeling like you have the stomach flu. The pain exists mostly in the lower abdomen, and it feels like you’re nauseous, even though you’re not throwing up. It could also feel like indigestion or stomach cramps. The extent of these symptoms will vary from woman to woman, but many will blame it on something they ate, so they won’t rush themselves to the hospital.
Cardiologist Nieca Goldberg, MD, medical director of the Joan H. Tisch Center for Women’s Health at NYU Langone Medical Center, told WebMD that it could feel as small as heartburn or as big as an elephant sitting on your tummy. Wherever the pain falls on this spectrum, don’t waste any time in seeking medical attention.
3. Pain in your jaw, back or neck
Women are much more likely than men to experience discomfort or pain in their jaw, back or neck when they’re having a heart attack. However, it’s easy to overlook because these kinds of pains aren’t generally associated with a heart attack. The American Heart Association says upper back pressure is especially an indication of a heart attack, and you should call 911 right away if you experience it.
4. Shortness of breath
Not surprisingly, shortness of breath is another telltale sign that you’re having a heart attack. Dr. Goldberg told the American Heart Association that it could feel like you’ve just run a marathon and you’re trying to catch your breath, even though you haven’t moved much at all. This is also a product of your heart not getting enough oxygen, which puts your body into emergency mode.
5. Inexplicable sweating
When your arteries are clogged, it takes a lot of effort for your heart to pump blood throughout your whole body, so in an attempt to keep your body temperature down, your body will break out in a sweat. This could manifest in clammy hands, perspiration under your arms or full body sweating. Women sometimes tend to wake up in the middle of the night in sweat-soaked sheets. If that happens to you, get yourself to a hospital immediately.
6. Sudden lightheadedness or dizziness
The lack of oxygen rich blood to your heart could cause sensations of lightheadedness or dizziness, sometimes even to the point where you faint. But even if you don’t faint and you’re feeling strangely dizzy, don’t waste any time in getting yourself to a hospital, because your heart could be failing.
7. Extreme fatigue
Women have to juggle enough responsibilities as it is, so we’re used to feeling tired and rundown. Unfortunately, that means a lot of women who are having a heart attack have no idea, since they mistake the severe fatigue for nothing more than run-of-the-mill exhaustion. Dr. Goldberg said women just chalk these symptoms up to aging or not getting enough sleep.
“They do this because they are scared and because they put their families first,” Dr. Goldberg said. “There are still many women who are shocked that they could be having a heart attack.”
That’s why she and many other medical experts are educating women everywhere about the signs of a heart attack and encouraging them to go to the hospital as soon as they experience them. Because it’s time we start looking after ourselves first and foremost — after all, if we’re not healthy, we can’t continue to run the world.