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Women and heart attacks

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The symptoms of a heart attack vary from person to person.

Not everyone gets 'classic', crushing chest pain.

The most important thing is recognising the symptoms, something that we know women are less likely to do.  

Women may be less likely to seek medical attention and treatment quickly, despite the warning signs. This can dramatically reduce your chance of survival. 

If you think you are having a heart attack, don’t delay; call 999 for an ambulance immediately. 

Rapid treatment is essential, and the aim is to restore blood flow to the affected part of the heart muscle as soon as possible. This helps to limit the amount of damage to the heart. 

Signs and symptoms of a heart attack in women

Heart attack symptoms can vary but the most common signs of a heart attack are:

  • chest pain or discomfort in your chest that suddenly occurs and doesn't go away. It may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing
  • the pain may spread to your left or right arm or may spread to your neck, jaw, back or stomach 
  • you may also feel sick, sweaty, light-headed or short of breath.

Other less common symptoms include:

  • a sudden feeling of anxiety that can feel similar to a panic attack
  • excessive coughing or wheezing

Chest pain should never be ignored. If you are experiencing any of the above symptoms dial 999 immediately

Learn more about heart attack symptoms.

The statistics

Coronary heart disease kills more than twice as many women as breast cancer in the UK every year, and is the single biggest killer of women worldwide - yet despite this it’s often perceived to be a ‘man’s disease’.

There are more than 800,000 women in the UK living with coronary heart disease, which is the main cause of heart attacks. 35,000 women are admitted to hospital following a heart attack each year in the UK - an average of 98 women per day, or 4 per hour. 

Considering these figures, it’s worrying that some women don’t think that heart disease could happen to them. 

How can I reduce my risk of having a heart attack?

As a woman, your hormones may give you some protection from coronary heart disease (CHD) in your pre-menopause years. Post menopause, your risk rises - and continues to rise as your get older. 

As you get older it is increasingly important to be aware of the risk factors that can affect your risk of developing CHD. The more risk factors you have, the higher your risk: 

We recommend that all women over the age of 40 visit their local GP or nurse for a health check to check their cardiovascular risk. If you are aged 40–74 you can ask for an NHS health check in England only, but similar schemes are available in other parts of the UK.

Your doctor should invite you to review your risk every five years, but you can also just make an appointment yourself to check your blood pressure and cholesterol.

This check may help to highlight anything that could put you at increased risk of having a heart attack. Identifying and managing risk factors such as high blood pressure or high cholesterol early on could help lower your risk of a heart attack in the future.  

If you have a family history of heart or circulatory disease make sure you tell your doctor or nurse. You are considered to have a family history of heart or circulatory disease if:

  • your father or brother was under the age of 55 when they were diagnosed with a heart or circulatory disease or
  • your mother or sister was under the age of 65 when they were diagnosed with a heart or circulatory disease. 

More about heart attacks 

  • Visit our heart attack page for more information about how a heart attack is diagnosed and recovery
  • Read and watch Caroline's story of travelling the world after a heart attack.

Help and information

Want to know more?

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The front cover of the British Heart Foundation

Heart attack