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Am I Having a Heart Attack?

Some signs are surprising — especially for women

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  • Shortness of breath: You may feel you can't catch your breath, even when resting. This breathlessness often occurs before the chest pain.

  • Dizziness or lightheadedness: You may feel as if you will pass out.

  • Cold sweat: Sweating when you are cold or have a chill.

Symptoms more likely in women

Women have a higher risk of dying from a heart attack than men do, partly because they often don't realize they're having a heart attack and partly because they delay getting help.

Women are less likely than men to have the typical "Hollywood heart attack." Chest pain was not the main symptom in about 46 percent of women who had a heart attack.

Women are less likely than men to have the typical "Hollywood heart attack," says Sharonne Hayes, M.D., cardiologist and director of the Mayo Clinic's Women's Heart Clinic in Rochester, Minn. Chest pain was not the main symptom in about 46 percent of women who had a heart attack, studies show.

  • Pain in the arm (especially left arm), back, neck, abdomen or shoulder blades: When the nerves of the heart are irritated because the heart isn't getting enough blood, discomfort or pain can radiate out to many places in the body. The pain often is described as an uncomfortable pressure, tightness or ache. "If you can put a finger on it and say, 'It hurts right here,' that's much less likely to be a heart attack," says Pamela Ouyang, a cardiologist with the Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center.

  • Jaw pain: Jaw and throat pain are quite common, says Ouyang. She says the feeling can start in the chest and move to the throat — as if someone is choking you — and then to the jaw. But again, it's not always obvious. Sometimes people "go to the dentist, because they think it's a toothache," when they actually had a heart attack.

  • Nausea and vomiting: Women are more likely than men to have this symptom, and they may think they have a stomach flu rather than a heart attack.

  • Overwhelming and unusual fatigue: Fatigue is generally a symptom of 21st-century life, so it's often overlooked as a heart attack sign, but it's extremely common, so beware if you're unusually exhausted.

Next: Is it heartburn, a panic attack or a heart attack? »

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