Chest pain…shortness of breath…feeling faint…and/or discomfort in the arm—or even the neck, jaw or back. If you are overcome by such symptoms and perhaps even have an intense and sudden “sense of doom,” you’re likely to suspect a heart attack and rush to a hospital.
But wouldn’t it be better to get a heads-up beforehand that a heart attack is on the way?
What’s behind this early-warning system? The blockage that creates a heart attack often develops over time, and its symptoms, though they may be mild and elusive, should not be ignored.
Knowing the early red flags—including those you might not immediately connect to a heart problem—can allow you to see a doctor before a life-threatening heart attack occurs. Women, especially, can have symptoms that do not immediately bring heart disease to mind.
Important: If these symptoms are extreme and last for more than a few minutes—especially if they are accompanied by any of the more typical symptoms such as those described above—call 911. You could be having an actual heart attack. Even if these symptoms are mild to moderate but seem unexplained, call your doctor. If he/she cannot be reached but you’re still concerned, go to the emergency room.
The following are examples of the subtle symptoms that can precede a heart attack—sometimes by days or weeks…
• Fatigue. If you feel more tired than usual, it’s easy to tell yourself you’re just growing older or getting out of shape. But pay attention! It could be the early-warning sign of heart trouble.
If your usual daily activities, whether it’s walking the dog or cleaning the house, leave you feeling more tired than normal, talk to your doctor.
• Flu like symptoms. If you get hit with extreme fatigue, as well as weakness and/or feelings of light-headedness, you may think you’re coming down with the flu. But people report having these same symptoms prior to a heart attack.
Call your doctor if you experience flulike symptoms but no fever (a telltale flu symptom). Another clue: The flu generally comes on quickly, while flulike symptoms associated with heart disease may develop gradually.
• Nausea and/or indigestion. These are among the most overlooked symptoms of a heart attack—perhaps because they are typically due to gastrointestinal problems.
But if you are feeling sick to your stomach and throwing up, it could be a heart attack rather than food poisoning or some other stomach problem—especially if you’re also sweating and your skin has turned an ashen color. If indigestion comes and goes, does not occur after a meal or doesn’t improve within a day or so—especially if you’re using antacids or antinausea medication—this could also mean heart problems. See a doctor.
• Excessive perspiration. If you are sweating more than usual—especially during times when you’re not exerting yourself—it could mean that there are blockages. This can cause your heart to work harder, which may lead to excessive sweating. See your doctor. Clammy skin and night sweats also can be warning signs. This is likely to be a cold sweat, instead of the heat experienced in menopausal hot flashes. If sweating occurs with any of the classic heart attack symptoms described above, don’t think twice—call 911.
• Shortness of breath. If you notice that you are beginning to feel more winded than usual, see your doctor. Shortness of breath can be a precursor to heart attack. If shortness of breath becomes stronger or lasts longer than usual, call 911. Shortness of breath may be your only symptom of a heart attack and may occur while you are resting or doing only minor physical activity.
• Sexual dysfunction. Men with heart problems that can lead to heart attack often have trouble achieving and/or keeping an erection. Because poor blood flow to the penis can be a sign of possible blockages elsewhere in the body, including the heart, erectile dysfunction can be an early-warning sign to get checked for cardiovascular disease. Men should absolutely discuss this symptom with their doctors.
WOMEN, PAY ATTENTION!
After a woman goes through menopause—when the body’s production of heart-protective estrogen declines—her risk for a heart attack dramatically increases.
Important facts for women: More women die of heart disease each year than men. Nearly two-thirds of women who died from heart attacks had no history of chest pain. The higher death rate for women is likely due to the fact that women don’t seek medical attention as promptly as men because they are afraid of being embarrassed if the symptoms turn out to be nothing serious. Don’t let this fear stop you from seeking immediate care. If the symptoms turn out to be nothing serious, the emergency medical team will be happy!
What to watch for: While most (but not all) men experience crushing or squeezing chest pain (usually under the breastbone), women are more likely to have no chest pain (or simply a feeling of “fullness” in the chest). Also, women are more likely than men to suffer dizziness, shortness of breath and/or nausea as the main symptoms of heart attack. Most women (71%) experience sudden onset of extreme weakness that feels like the flu.
Source: John A. Elefteriades, MD, the William W.L. Glenn Professor of Surgery and director of the Aortic Institute at Yale University and Yale–New Haven Hospital. He serves on the editorial boards of The American Journal of Cardiology, the Journal of Cardiac Surgery, Cardiology and The Journal of Thoracic and Cardiovascular Surgery and is the author of several books, including Your Heart: An Owner’s Guide. HeartAuthorMD.com