Here are a
dozen symptoms that may signal heart trouble.
1. Anxiety. Heart attack can cause intense anxiety or a fear of death.
Heart attack survivors often talk about having experienced a sense of
2. Chest discomfort. Pain in the chest is the classic symptom of heart
attack, and “the No. 1 symptom that we typically look for,” says Jean C.
McSweeney, PhD, RN, associate dean for research at the University of
Arkansas for Medical Sciences College of Nursing in Little Rock and a
pioneer in research on heart symptoms in women. But not all heart
attacks cause chest pain, and chest pain can stem from ailments that
have nothing to do with the heart.
Heart-related chest pain is often centered under the breastbone, perhaps
a little to the left of center. The pain has been likened to “an
elephant sitting on the chest,” but it can also be an uncomfortable
sensation of pressure, squeezing, or fullness. “It’s not unusual for
women to describe the pain as a minor ache,” McSweeney says. “Some women
say the pain wasn’t bad enough even to take a Tylenol.”
Women, more so than men, can also experience a burning sensation in
their chest, rather than a pressure or pain. “Sometimes people make the
mistake that the pain comes from a stomach problem,” says Nieca
Goldberg, MD, clinical associate professor of medicine at the NYU
Langone Medical Center in New York City and another expert on women’s
3. Cough. Persistent coughing or wheezing can be a symptom of heart
failure — a result of fluid accumulation in the lungs. In some cases,
people with heart failure cough up bloody phlegm.
4. Dizziness. Heart attacks can cause lightheadedness and loss of
consciousness. So can potentially dangerous heart rhythm abnormalities
known as arrhythmias.
5. Fatigue. Especially among women, unusual fatigue can occur during a
heart attack as well as in the days and weeks leading up to one. And
feeling tired all the time may be a symptom of heart failure.
Of course, you can also feel tired or fatigued for other reasons. How
can you tell heart-related fatigue from other types of fatigue?
“If you don’t feel well and all the wind is knocked out of your sails,
don’t try to figure it out on the Internet or from a book,” says
Goldberg. “Wasting time is dangerous.”
6. Nausea or lack of appetite. It’s not uncommon for people to feel sick
to their stomach or throw up during a heart attack. And abdominal
swelling associated with heart failure can interfere with appetite.
7. Pain in other parts of the body. In many heart attacks, pain begins
in the chest and spreads to the shoulders, arms, elbows, back, neck,
jaw, or abdomen. But sometimes there is no chest pain — just pain in
these other body areas like one or both arms, or between the shoulders.
The pain might come and go.
8. Rapid or irregular pulse. Doctors say that there’s usually nothing
worrisome about an occasional skipped heartbeat. But a rapid or
irregular pulse — especially when accompanied by weakness, dizziness, or
shortness of breath — can be evidence of a heart attack, heart failure,
or an arrhythmia. Left untreated, some arrhythmias can lead to stroke,
heart failure, or sudden death.
9. Shortness of breath. People who feel winded at rest or with minimal
exertion might have a pulmonary condition like asthma or chronic
obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). But breathlessness could also
indicate a heart attack or heart failure.
“Sometimes people having a heart attack don’t have chest pressure or
pain but feel extremely short of breath,” Goldberg says. “It’s like
they’ve just run a marathon when they haven’t even moved.” During a
heart attack, shortness of breath often accompanies chest discomfort,
but it can also occur before or without chest discomfort.
10. Sweating. Breaking out in a cold sweat is a common symptom of heart
attack. “You might just be sitting in a chair when all of a sudden you
are really sweating like you had just worked out,” Frid says.
11. Swelling. Heart failure can cause fluid to accumulate in the body.
This can cause swelling (often in the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen) as
well as sudden weight gain and sometimes a loss of appetite.
12. Weakness. In the days leading up to a heart attack, as well as
during one, some people experience severe, unexplained weakness. “One
woman told me it felt like she couldn’t hold a piece of paper between
her fingers,” McSweeney says.