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Heart attacks in women

At least two women die from a heart attack every day in New Zealand. Do you know the risks and the warning signs? And are women’s heart attack symptoms different to those experienced by men?

Heart attacks are often perceived to be a men’s problem, but on average 900 women die from one each year in New Zealand. That’s more than two women a day losing their life to a heart attack.

Too many New Zealanders die or live with permanent disability because of a lack of awareness of heart attack warning signs and delays in seeking medical help.

Minutes matter – if you think you are having a heart attack, call 111 immediately.

Do women experience different heart attack symptoms?

Women may experience any of the heart attack warning signs. Signs vary and women’s heart attack signs may be slightly different to men’s. 

Chest pain or discomfort is the most common sign of a heart attack, but women are more likely than men to experience a heart attack without chest pain or discomfort. If women do have tightness, pressure or discomfort in the chest, this may not always be severe or even the most noticeable symptom. Any pain or discomfort may come and go and can extend to the abdomen or upper back. 

Women may experience nausea, indigestion, dizziness, sweating, shortness of breath or extreme fatigue.  

If you’re experiencing any of these symptoms, you may be having a heart attack

Do you feel any: In any of these areas: You may also feel: 
  • heaviness 
  • tightness 
  • pressure 
  • discomfort or pain 
  • chest 
  • shoulder/s 
  • arm/s 
  • jaw 
  • neck 
  • upper back 
  • abdominal 
  • sweaty 
  • short of breath 
  • sick (nausea or vomiting) 
  • dizziness 
  • extreme fatigue 

It is important to remember that everyone (male or female) experiences different heart attack symptoms. And that the symptoms of a subsequent heart attack may be different from the first. 

What should I do if I think I’m having a heart attack?

Heart attack symptoms typically last more than a few minutes or may come and go. Symptoms vary from person to person. 

If you think you, or someone near you, might be having a heart attack don’t wait, call 111 immediately. 

Chew an aspirin if advised by a paramedic. 

If you have angina medication, take one puff of your GTN spray. Wait five minutes. If symptoms continue, take another puff and wait five minutes. If you still have symptoms, treat it as a heart attack. Call 111 for an ambulance. 

Do heart attack symptoms for women differ according to age?

Heart attack symptoms do not differ by age. The important thing to remember is that no two heart attacks are alike, so every person and every heart attack can have different symptoms.

Heart attack treatment for women

The treatment for heart attack in women is the same as it is for men.

However, treatment is more likely to be delayed for women than for men due to a number of factors such as:  

  • women tend to develop symptoms of heart disease at an older age 
  • women are less likely to seek help 
  • women are more likely to be misdiagnosed due to more varied and sometimes less severe symptoms.

Heart attack risk factors in women

There are a number of factors that are known to increase your risk of coronary heart disease and having a heart attack. These are called risk factors.

Women and men largely share the same risk factors for heart disease. These include:

However women are more vulnerable to some risk factors than men. Heart disease tends to occur slightly later in women because a woman's risk increases as she goes through menopause. Women also have some risks related to pregnancy and hormonal dysfunction.

Heart disease in women