Heart Attack Symptoms in Women: Recognizing Early Warning Signs

By Dr. Salil Shirodkar in Heart Institute

Apr 24 , 2023 | 5 min read

What is a Heart Attack and Why is it dangerous:? 

A heart attack also referred to as myocardial infarction is a critical medical emergency in which the blood supply to the heart is suddenly blocked, mostly by a blood clot. The lack of blood supply to the heart can cause severe damage to the heart muscle and potentially become life-threatening. Coronary heart disease is the primary cause of heart attacks. It is a condition that is characterized by the clogging of blood vessels with deposits of cholesterol, recognized as plaques.  

Quick facts for heart attack in women: 

  • It’s a myth that heart attacks primarily affect older men and not women. 
  • Heart attack is one of the leading causes of death in women in India. 
  • Symptoms of heart disease in women are different from those of men. 
  • Symptoms of heart disease in women are often mistaken as indications of anxiety and stress, which delay the diagnosis and treatment. 

Common heart attack symptoms in women:

Chest pain

Most heart attacks in men and women involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest. This persists for more than a few minutes or can reappear with time. It feels like having an uncomfortable pressure, grasping, heaviness, or tightness which is hard to localize or pinpoint.
Research says that about 90% of women and men encounter chest pain when they have a heart attack. The pain occurs following stress, which can be caused by either physical activity or emotional distress.

Pain in the arm, back, neck, or jaw 

Heart attack symptoms in women may also involve experiencing pain or distress in one or both arms, back, neck, or jaw regions. When the attack happens, pain radiates from the original distress points and impacts nerves, thus spreading to other areas of the body.  This radiating pain may gradually become more intense over time and is a matter of concern.

Stomach pain

Women often experience nausea and stomach pain as warning signs of a heart attack. They often confuse it with heartburn or acid reflux. Acid reflux originates from inflammation in the esophagus, the tube leading from the throat to the stomach. The tube is located right next to the heart which makes it difficult to figure out whether the discomfort is due to acidity or a heart attack.

Shortness of breath

Shortness of breath without any apparent reason can be an indication of an impending heart attack. The heart is responsible for circulating blood to the tissues and receiving oxygen from the lungs, and if it is unable to do so, warning signs such as shortness of breath may appear. During heart attacks, it is common to observe this symptom.


Heart attack symptoms in women may also entail excessive sweating without doing exercise or being physically active. One may suddenly experience cold perspiration while also feeling some chest pain. This is because when the heart has to pump blood through clogged arteries, it requires more effort. Thus, the body perspires in order to regulate the body temperature during this increased exertion.


Unusual and severe fatigue without physical exertion is one of the prominent heart attack symptoms in women. Here, the heart becomes more exhausted as it struggles to pump blood through a coronary artery that is blocked. The extra fat, cholesterol, and other deposits impose an obstruction to the blood flow, thus causing enhanced fatigue. It could be an early indication of an underlying issue that requires immediate medical attention.

Risk factors for heart attack in women

Understanding the risk factors that can lead to heart disease is crucially important. Unfortunately, many women are unaware of these risk factors, which can lead them to dismiss the symptoms as not being serious warning signs.
Some of the common risk factors for heart attack in women are mentioned below:

  • Smoking – Research shows that chemicals in cigarette smoke can cause blood thickening, thus forming clots inside the veins and arteries. This leads to a blockage which can cause heart attack and sudden death. Women are 25 % more likely to have a heart attack than men if they are into smoking.
  • Lifestyle preferences – Eating a diet with a high amount of saturated and trans fats may lead to high cholesterol levels and thus heart diseases. Overconsumption of alcohol and less physical activity can also increase the risk of a heart attack.
  • Some medical conditions – Research showed that women suffering from diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure or an inflammatory disease like lupus or rheumatoid arthritis have a higher risk of heart disease.
  • Pregnancy complications – Women having pregnancy complications like gestational diabetes, gestational hypertension or preeclampsia have almost 65% higher likelihood of having a heart attack later in life.
  • Menopause – The hormonal changes in women after menopause, which include lower estrogen levels can increase the risk of a heart attack. When estrogen levels decrease, there is a corresponding increase in total cholesterol levels. This can induce heart disease.

Effective Treatment Options for Heart Attacks in Women: 

Heart attack requires urgent treatment to fix the blood flow and normalize blood oxygen levels.


  • Aspirin - This drug reduces blood clotting. It keeps blood flowing through a narrowed artery.
  • Clot busters - Drugs like thrombolytics or fibrinolytic help in breaking blood clots that block the blood flow to the heart.
  • Nitroglycerin - This medicine widens the blood vessels and improves blood flow.
  • Blood-thinning medications - A medicine called heparin is intravenously administered. It makes the blood less likely to form clots.

Surgical procedures

  • Coronary angioplasty and stenting- This procedure helps in opening the clogged heart arteries. The cardiologist uses a slender and flexible tube called a catheter to navigate to the narrowed section of an artery and then expands it to enhance the blood flow.
  • Coronary artery bypass surgery - This is a type of open-heart surgery performed as an emergency procedure when a person is experiencing a heart attack. Here, the surgeon creates a new pathway for blood flow in the heart by taking a healthy blood vessel from another part of the body.


In recent years, India has experienced an increase in the incidence of heart attacks, which is attributed to lifestyle changes and other factors. However, adopting a healthy lifestyle and managing cholesterol and blood pressure levels can reduce the risk of further attacks. If there are any concerns about heart health, it is recommended to consult a doctor who can perform a cardiovascular risk assessment to determine the level of risk.