All the Subtle Symptoms of Heart Disease Women Should Know
They're not as noticeable as the ones seen in men, which makes knowing these signs even more important.
While heart disease is generally thought of as something only men should watch out for, it's incredibly important that women are aware of the symptoms, too. It affects them even more than they may realize. "Cardiovascular disease continues to be the leading cause of death among women in the United States, accounting for one of every three female deaths," says Charles Richardson, MD, founder of Cleveland Heart.
The problem in recognizing heart disease symptoms is that they're not always as noticeable for women as they are for men. "Traditionally, women have been under-diagnosed with heart disease because they sometimes show these atypical symptoms," says Jeffrey A. Wuhl, MD, a cardiologist in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Or, symptoms that simply aren't as extreme. What men describe as severe chest pain might feel like nothing more than a little pressure or discomfort for women.
Because it's common for heart disease to first be diagnosed at the time of a heart attack, heart failure, or other heart issue, it's all the more important to pay close attention to any indication that something is off. Knowing these 13 symptoms could save your life. And for some fascinating facts about this part of your body, check out 23 Amazing Things You Didn't Know About Your Heart.
Experiencing unusual fatigue when you're generally pretty energized is something you should never ignore. "It's one symptom that seems to be more common in women and is often missed as a sign of heart disease," Wuhl says. "It's something that needs to be taken seriously by doctors—especially in women who have cardiac risk factors." And for more possible causes of your fatigue, check out 25 Reasons You're Tired All the Time.
Nausea or vomiting
While nausea or vomiting can occur for many reasons, Wuhl says it could subtly signal heart disease as well. Because these symptoms can be so "minor" compared to something like chest pain, it's usually something women unfortunately brush off—thinking it's something like the flu—instead of getting checked out. And for more signals being sent from your midsection, check out This Is Everything Your Stomach Is Trying to Tell You About Your Health.
Shortness of breath
Experiencing shortness of breath—especially along with the sudden onset of severe fatigue or other cardiac symptoms—is your heart trying to tell you something is wrong. "Take this symptom seriously," says Nate Favini, MD, an internist and the medical lead at Forward in San Francisco, California. "Some women feel like they just ran a marathon—even though they didn't go anywhere—when they're having a heart attack." And for more things to watch out for when it comes to your breathing, check out 17 Warning Signs Your Lungs Are Trying to Send You.
Weakness or coldness in your legs
Experiencing weakness or coldness in your legs or arms can occur when your blood vessels in those areas are narrowed, says the Mayo Clinic. It's something you might write off as no big deal, but dealing with this symptom out of the blue could be your heart alerting you to a serious problem.
Sweating during a workout is totally normal. What Wuhl says isn't normal, however, is when you're excessively sweating when there's no real reason for it. In a study from the University of Illinois at Chicago, sudden sweating while experiencing discomfort in your chest, arm, neck, or jaw could signal a heart attack is on the way. And for things you are doing that are putting your health in jeopardy, check out 20 Ways You're Raising Your Risk of a Heart Attack Without Knowing It.
Chest pain or tightness
Experiencing pain in your chest tends to be one of the more well-known signs something is wrong with your heart. But according to Wuhl, it doesn't always show up as jarring pain—sometimes it may just be a slight discomfort or tightness "that radiates to the neck, jaw, arm, or back," he says.
Abdominal pain or pressure
According to Favini, any pain or pressure in your upper abdomen should be addressed immediately. "It could be a sign of a heart attack—particularly if it's worse with exertion or severe and not going away," he says. "If it's accompanied by things like lightheadedness, pain in the arm or jaw, or shortness of breath, seek medical attention right away."
Hot flashes are a part of life, but they don't just show up due to your age. "Hot flashes are a common complaint for many women during menopause, but can insinuate heart issues," Richardson says. According to Harvard Health, past research has even shown women who have hot flashes regularly had "double the risk of having a cardiovascular event."
Discomfort when exercising
Discomfort or pain is always something to be aware of—"especially if the origin is hard to pinpoint—for example there's no specific muscle or joint that aches," says Richardson. This is especially true when you're exercising. "If the discomfort begins or worsens when you're exerting yourself, and then stops when you quit exercising, you should get it checked out."
Swelling in your feet and lower legs
If you sprain your ankle, swelling is a given. But experiencing swelling in your feet and lower legs could be a symptom of something much worse. According to the American Academy of Dermatology (AAD), some diseases of the heart can cause fluid to build up, showing up as a swelling in your feet, lower legs, and even your upper legs and groin in some instances. If there's no explanation for your swelling, it's important to get it checked out by your doctor as soon as possible. And for more helpful information, sign up for our daily newsletter.
High blood sugar levels
If you tend to go crazy on the sugar, it might be time to develop some healthier habits instead. According to Richardson, sugar has been shown to be devastating to heart function. "Because of that, everyone should have their blood sugar levels tested annually," he says. "The increase in type 2 diabetes in American women is quite disparaging. It's highly documented that diabetes can lead to high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and physical inactivity. All contributing to heart failure."
Waxy growths on your skin
If you've noticed yellowish, waxy growths on your skin—generally in the corners of your eyes or on the backs of your lower legs—it could be cholesterol deposits, says the AAD. Unhealthy cholesterol levels and heart disease go hand in hand, and these growths are often a warning sign of heart disease. In fact, it's why derms sometimes spot heart problems first.
Jaw and arm pain
While chest pain can signal heart issues, Favini says it's not typically the first type of pain a woman will experience. "Pain from the heart muscle can radiate to the jaw and arm. Women are more likely than men to experience just the arm or jaw pain without the chest pain," he says. "If this is worse with exertion or not going away—and especially if it's accompanied by a cold sweat or other cardiac symptoms—it's best to seek medical care."