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Gender/Sex Differences in Illnesses: Heart Attack Symptoms

Gender and sex differences in modern healthcare have, for the most part, been overlooked; the misconception that men and women experience the same symptoms for various diseases is “holding back more efficient health care, as gender-based prevention measures or therapies are probably more effective than the usual ‘one-size-fits all' approach” (Regitz-Zagrosek, 2012). These challenges in making accurate diagnoses can put a patient at risk of developing further health complications. In heart attacks, specifically, unfit treatment — looking for only the “classical” symptoms — can put women at a higher risk of long-term injury. As noted by the American Heart Association, “even when the signs are subtle, the consequences can be deadly, especially if the victim doesn’t get help right away” (American Heart Association, 2015).

Now, what exactly are the symptoms of a heart attack? According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), “The major symptoms of a heart attack are:

  • Chest pain or discomfort. Most heart attacks involve discomfort in the center or left side of the chest that lasts for more than a few minutes or that goes away and comes back. The discomfort can feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness, or pain.

  • Feeling weak, light-headed, or faint. You may also break out into a cold sweat.

  • Pain or discomfort in the jaw, neck, or back.

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms or shoulders.

  • Shortness of breath. This often comes along with chest discomfort, but shortness of breath also can happen before chest discomfort” (National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, Division for Heart Disease and Stroke Prevention, 2021).

Image Credits: The Heart Foundation

These are known as the classical symptoms of a heart attack, primarily portrayed in many medical-related dramatizations and commercials, specifically angina (chest pain). However, these discomforts are not as prevalent within women; many experience more flu-like symptoms and shortness of breath, commonly referred to as “atypical” symptoms. The Heart Foundation has found that common heart attack symptoms in women are: “

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.

  • Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.

  • Other common symptoms in women include breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea/vomiting, or feeling lightheaded, palpitations; sleep disturbances and unexplained fatigue” (Erlinger, 2017).

It is critical for health communicators to emphasize the pathophysiology and biological effects of sex differences that exist. In order to continue bridging the gap between gender disparities and appropriate healthcare, professionals must start viewing different diseases through a gender & sex lens.

Written by: Jocelyn Miller (Youth Ambassador)

MEDICAL DISCLAIMER: This article is meant to be informative and educational (not to be used as medical advice). If you are experiencing any of these symptoms, please contact your primary care physician or 911 as soon as possible.


American Heart Association. (2015). Heart attack symptoms in women.

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2019). Heart Attack Facts & Statistics. CDC.

Erlinger, C. (2017, March 29). Heart Attack: Men vs. Women - The Heart Foundation. The Heart Foundation.

Regitz-Zagrosek, V. (2012). Sex and gender differences in health. EMBO Reports, 13(7), 596–603.


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