Are You Headed for a Heart Attack?

From the WebMD Archives

By Susan Ince

Good Housekeeping Magazine Logo

The brutal truth: When a woman suffers a heart attack, she is more likely than a man to die, be permanently disabled, or have a second attack within a year. "We could do a lot to give women longer lives and better-quality lives if we could help them recognize heart problems before the first attack," says Jean C. McSweeney, Ph.D., R.N., nurse researcher at the University of Arkansas for Medical Sciences. In an award-winning research project, she interviewed hundreds of heart attack patients. It turned out that 95 percent of the women suspected something was wrong in the months before their attack. But that didn't necessarily send them to the doctor. And for those who did seek help, doctors often failed to identify the problems as heart-related.

If you experience any of the warning symptoms below—especially if the feelings are new, worse, unexplained, or you have other heart disease risk factors—see your doctor. How soon do you need an appointment? Within a month. But if your symptoms are getting worse, go sooner. And if they're very severe or you have signs of an impending heart attack, call 911. "Women die sitting at home," says McSweeney. "Any ER would prefer that you come in and not have a heart attack than have a heart attack at home, waiting to see if you get better."

Symptoms: Unusual fatigue

As Early Warning: Wake up tired. Difficult to carry out usual activities; gets worse over time.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Overwhelming exhaustion—too tired to do anything.

Symptoms: Shortness of breath

As Early Warning: Winded with little exertion. Improves when you stop.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Often the first symptom; continues or worsens.

Symptoms: Mood changes

As Early Warning: Fleeting feelings of anxiety for no reason. Goes away.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Anxiety occurs along with shortness of breath and doesn't let up.

Symptoms: Digestive changes

As Early Warning: Frequent indigestion.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Terrible heartburn, often with nausea and vomiting.


Symptoms: Weakness

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: No strength—like having the flu.

Symptoms: Sleep disturbance

As Early Warning: Trouble falling asleep or staying asleep.

Symptoms: Chest discomfort

As Early Warning: Pressure, pain, burning, or discomfort, like a pulled muscle.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Common, usually through chest or back. May or may not be the "Hollywood heart attack": crushing chest pain, pain radiating down arm.

Symptoms: Other pains

As Early Warning: Aching arms and hands; may have numbness or tingling.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Discomfort and/or pain in jaw, upper back, shoulders, neck, arms.

Other symptoms

As Early Warning: Headaches and periods of blurry vision.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: Cold sweat, pale skin.


As Early Warning: Symptoms come and go, but may increase in intensity and number as attack nears.

As Sign of Impending Heart Attack: You may have six or more different symptoms that become more intense and pile on top of one another.

Related content on

WebMD Feature from "Good Housekeeping" Magazine
Reprinted with permission from Hearst Communications, Inc.