Women’s Heart Attacks Often Self-Diagnosed as Stress

Experts at UChicago Medicine explain why women shouldn’t disregard any symptoms they’re experiencing because it could be a heart attack. Learn what to keep an eye out for.

When we think of someone experiencing a heart attack, we normally think of symptoms most common to men — tightness in left side of chest or jaw, sweatiness or even shoulder pain. 

But rarely do we think of the symptoms a woman has when she’s having a heart attack. But why? 

“When a woman has a heart attack, the symptoms are more subtle,” says Atman P. Shah, MD. “I continue to see women miss key signs of a current or upcoming heart attack.”

This is because the signs of a woman having a heart attack are varied and easily attributable to other illnesses or causes.   

Symptoms of heart attack in women

Atman P. Shah, MD, Clinical Director, Cardiology
Co-Director, Cardiac Catheterization Laboratory, UChicago Medicine. Photo credit: UChicago Medicine

“A woman’s symptoms may include chest pain, nausea, vomiting, fatigue, dizziness, stomach pain, shortness of breath or weakness,” says Dr. Shah. This is why heart attacks in women are personally misdiagnosed because the woman thinks it’s just stress or anxiety. 

Many women do not think it is common for them to have a heart attack or even heart disease — but this is untrue.


“While women tend to develop heart disease about ten years later than men, it remains the leading cause of death for both sexes,” says Kathleen Drinan, DO, a cardiologist with UChicago Medicine. “This is why I am committed to educating female patients on what can lead to heart disease and how we can work together to prevent it.”

Ways to prevent heart attacks in women

Knowledge is key, and the UChicago Medicine cardiology team takes the steps to educate women and primary care physicians on recognizing heart attack symptoms in women and not disregarding them for something less significant. 

“Factors that increase heart attack risk for both men and women include diabetes, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, smoking, family history and a diet high in saturated fats,” says Dr. Shah. 

It takes more than just hearing the factors to help women take the necessary precautions to avoid a heart attack or heart disease

Kathleen Drinan, DO, Cardiologist, UChicago Medicine. Photo credit: UChicago Medicine

“Quit smoking because the number one thing anyone can do to prevent disease — heart or otherwise — is to stop smoking,” says Dr. Drinan. 

According to the experts, controlling your blood pressure through diet, exercise or medication can help your overall heart health. Also, maintaining a healthy blood glucose and lowering high cholesterol are important to avoid a heart attack.


When to seek help 

The American Heart Association says for a woman to seek help if they have “uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of their chest that lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.” Other signs are shortness of breath, nausea/vomiting, pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

They explain that the consequences of ignoring these symptoms can be deadly, especially if the woman does not get help right away.

Content brought to you by UChicago Medicine. Learn about UChicago Medicine and Comer Children’s unique approach to the care of women and children. Discover UchicagoMedicine.org.

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Kari Zaffarano
Kari Zaffarano
Kari Zaffarano is a mom of one and Chicago Parent's Audience Development Coordinator. She tracks down the best events every week and shares the inside scoop with families in print and online. She enjoys reading, traveling and exploring new places with her son.


  1. wish I would have known this earlier
    when I was feeling signs nurses told me it was heart burn the pain went away but one day last year I ended up in the hospital with pain on both arms n chest pain doctors told me from blood work that I had a heart attack at some point n lucky that I went to the ER n didn’t ignore it this time stayed in the hospital A week got a stent A whole year later had two more heart attacks back to back and now I’m recovering


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