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Women and heart attacks: Be aware of subtler symptoms

If your dad said, "It feels like there's an elephant sitting on my chest," chances are you'd dial 911 and tell the operator, "We think it's a heart attack." But what if your mom said, "I'm totally exhausted, and I feel sick to my stomach"— would you consider her wise to take some stomach-settling medicine and a nap?

Would you know that her nausea and extreme fatigue could be signs she's having a heart attack? Even though every 90 seconds a woman in the U.S. has a heart attack, many people don't know a woman's symptoms can sometimes be different and more subtle than a man's. And when a woman doesn't realize she's having a heart attack, she may not get the emergency care she needs to prevent possibly fatal damage to her heart.

Know the symptoms

For both men and women, the most common signs of a heart attack are:

  • Pain, pressure, squeezing or discomfort in the chest
  • Sudden cold sweats
  • Fatigue for no reason
  • Sudden dizziness or light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath for no apparent reason
  • Nausea or vomiting

Of these, the last three tend to be more common for women than for men. Women are actually twice as likely as men to vomit or be nauseated during a heart attack. They might also:

  • Have pain or pressure in the lower chest, stomach and upper abdomen
  • Feel really tired
  • Experience sudden dizziness, with or without fainting

Wynne Crawford, MD, of Montgomery Cardiovascular Associates, PC, says: "Heart disease is an equal opportunity disease. Women just happen to get it about 10 years later than men."

More than half of women having a heart attack report generalized weakness that's not related to exercising. For some, extreme breathlessness— also without exertion—is the only sign they're having a heart attack.

According to a survey by the American Heart Association, many women would be reluctant to call for emergency medical help if they thought they were having a heart attack. Yet it's vital to get immediate help. Treatment is most effective if given within one hour after symptoms start.

So if you or anyone you know has one or more symptoms of a heart attack, call 911 right away. Don't wait more than five minutes to get help.

The Joint Commission has awarded Jackson Hospital with its gold seal of approval for heart attack care (AMI). To earn the seal, the hospital demonstrated compliance with The Joint Commission's national standards for quality and safety in heart attack care. The certification awards the hospital's dedication to continuous compliance with The Joint Commission's state-of-the-art standards.

"Achievement of an AMI certification from The Joint Commission speaks volumes about the high quality of care given by Jackson Hospital's medical team to the patient experiencing a heart attack," says CEO Joe Riley. "We are extremely proud to be the first hospital in Alabama to earn this designation, and we are even more proud of what it means for the communities we serve—excellent care for the heart attack patient right here in the River Region."

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