Elizabeth “Buffy” Fisher thought she had heartburn. When the burning didn’t go away, however, she sought help. Her “heartburn,” it turned out, was a serious heart condition many women don’t survive.
“Initially, I tried taking heartburn medicine, but that didn’t clear it up,” she said. “I had a gut feeling that something wasn’t right.”
Heart disease affects 43 million women a year in the U.S. and is the leading cause of death. Yet the symptoms of heart attacks and other cardiac events are often more subtle for women than in men, leaving women at risk of overlooking serious conditions when they occur.
“Often times, it’s very difficult to distinguish the symptoms of a heart attack, or other serious event, from heartburn,” says Dr. Darlene Eyster, a cardiologist at Good Samaritan Medical Center in Lafayette, Colorado. “That is why, if a woman thinks what she’s experiencing might be a heart attack, immediately take an aspirin and call 9-1-1.”
Elizabeth did not have a heart attack, but she had an equally serious aortic dissection. Her visit to the Emergency Room at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver resulted in a six-hour open heart surgery that saved her life. “I was told that, after the surgery, my doctor looked like he’d been through war,” says Elizabeth. “I’m just so thankful he went to war for me and that I made it through.”
In the case of an acute heart attack, symptoms in women may also differ slightly from those in men.
“Nearly all men and women experiencing a heart attack have chest pain — a pressure or squeezing sensation,” says Dr. Eyster. “However, women often also have nausea, vomiting, dizziness, arm and shoulder pain, or shortness of breath. Fatigue is also a complaint in women, not with an acute heart attack, but with angina, which frequently precedes a heart attack.”
For a busy mom or woman on-the-go, fatigue could easily be mistaken for just another day, but symptoms should not be taken lightly.
“Getting to the hospital as quickly as possible is the top priority,” says Dr. Eyster. “If you are having a heart attack, as time passes, the heart muscle weakens and can result in heart failure or even death.”
If you think you’re having a heart attack or other serious heart event, immediately call an ambulance and take an aspirin if available.
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