Women and Heart Disease: Know the Signs
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Do women have heart problems? While the symptoms might be different than they are for men, the answer is “yes.”
Coronary heart disease is the number one killer of women, affecting one out of every three women each year. While the risk of heart disease increases with age and menopause, younger women are at risk for heart disease, too. By learning some basic facts about symptoms, you can talk with your doctor about whether you’re at risk.
Find more information. Contact the UPMC Women’s Heart Program.
Signs and Symptoms of Heart Disease in Women
Women are busy juggling tasks at work and at home. It’s easy for women to care for others, but what about caring for yourself? Do you ignore how you feel because you’re too busy, or because you think there’s nothing to it?
You might think you’re feeling tired because you’re getting older. Or if you’re pregnant, you guess that’s why you’re feeling light-headed. You’ve had a dry cough for a few months, but isn’t it just a cold? Maybe, but maybe not. It’s a good idea to talk to your doctor if you have:
- Shortness of breath
- Chest pain
- Fluttering in the chest (also called heart palpitations)
- Fatigue, or feeling very tired
- Coughing, especially a dry cough
- Swelling of your feet or ankles
- Fast weight gain
And, it’s very important to know that heart attack symptoms can be different for women than they are for men. Women don’t always have the classic symptoms like chest pain, arm pain, and shortness of breath. Your symptoms might be less dramatic and can include:
- Pressure or pain in the chest that comes and goes
- Dizziness or light-headedness
- Pain in the jaw, arm, or back
If you think you or someone else is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 right away. Early treatment can save your life.
Common Heart Problems
Both men and women are affected by:
- Coronary artery disease – Happens when the blood vessels that bring blood and nutrients to the heart and blocked
- Valve problems – Happen when the valves don’t open or close properly
- Arrhythmia – Happens when your heart beats too fast, too slow, or in an irregular way
- Heart failure – Happens when your heart can’t pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs
Get Checked or Screened
By having a checkup, you can get facts about your symptoms, your risks, and your treatment options.
Visit the UPMC Women’s Heart Program or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (1-855-876-2484) to learn more or request an appointment. You can also gain insight into your risk factors by visiting a free heart screening.
If you’ve ever felt fluttering in your chest or like your heart is pounding, you know it can be a little shocking or scary.
“When your heart beats rapidly or irregularly for a few seconds, you might feel this odd sensation in your chest, neck or throat,” says Dr. Pugazhendhi Vijayaraman, cardiac electrophysiologist and director of cardiac electrophysiology at Geisinger Northeast.
This fleeting feeling like your heart is fluttering is a called a heart palpitation, and most of the time it’s not cause for concern.
Heart palpitations can be caused by anxiety, dehydration, a hard workout or if you’ve consumed caffeine, nicotine, alcohol, or even some cold and cough medications. Women who are pregnant also commonly experience heart palpitations.
“If you experience heart palpitations that are linked with anxiety, you may feel other symptoms like an upset stomach or sweaty palms,” says Dr. Vijayaraman. You can likely attribute this anxiety to a life event like stress at work or home, or a job interview.
But if heart palpitations last more than a few seconds at a time, increase in frequency over time, or if you know you have an existing heart condition, this fluttering may be something more than just anxiety. It might be atrial fibrillation, or AFib.
“During atrial fibrillation, blood pools in the upper atria and the heart flutters, or fibrillates, as it tries harder to pump out this blood to other chambers of the heart and through the body,” explains Dr. Vijayaraman.
Other symptoms of AFib include dizziness, shortness of breath, weakness or general fatigue and chest pain.
For some people, AFib lasts a few days at a time and their heartbeat returns to normal. For others, AFib can last longer or become chronic. Whether the flutters are short-lived or become permanent, AFib increases the risk of stroke and heart failure.
“Any time your blood isn’t pumping consistently through your body, you could be at risk for a stroke,” says Dr. Vijayaraman. “Patients with AFib are five times more likely to have a stroke than those without it.”
It’s important to see a doctor if you notice that your heart palpitations are occurring regularly or increasing in frequency.
“A doctor may monitor your heartbeat and conduct tests to determine if you have AFib,” said Dr. Vijayaraman. “Understanding your family health history and any current health issues can also help your doctor accurately diagnose your irregular heartbeat.”
It’s also important to note that some people who have AFib don’t experience heart flutters or other symptoms at all.
“Occasionally, a patient will be diagnosed with AFib during a routine checkup,” notes Dr. Vijayaraman. “That’s why it’s so important to see your doctor regularly, especially as you age.”
To make an appointment with Dr. Vijayaraman or another heart rhythm specialist at Geisinger, visit Geisinger.org or call 800-275-6401.
A Flutter or Cough Sensation in the Chest
A flutter sensation in the chest is caused by abnormal electrical impulses.
A flutter or cough sensation in the chest is medically referred to as an atrial fibrillation, which is a type of heart rhythm disorder known as an arrhythmia. An atrial fibrillation results in poor blood flow to the rest of the body, and while the condition itself is not life-threatening, it is considered a medical emergency because it can lead to severe complications.
The heart contains a natural pacemaker called the sinoatrial, or SA, node. The SA node gives off an electrical impulse that signals the heart to contract. In normal circumstances, the heart beats in a specific order, allowing blood to flow through the body without complications. In those with an atrial fibrillation, the electrical signals are chaotic and abnormally rapid. This causes the two upper chambers of the heart to contract irregularly and too quickly, which causes a flutter sensation in the chest. When the upper chambers beat too quickly, the lower chambers cannot remain in sync with them. As a result, blood accumulates in the upper chambers of the heart, or atria, and is not pumped into the lower chambers, or ventricles.
Causes and Risk Factors
Atrial fibrillation occurs as a result of physical damage to the heart's electrical system. This damage is often caused by coronary artery disease or high blood pressure, according to the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute. Other possible causes of an atrial fibrillation include congenital heart defects, abnormalities in the heart valves, lung diseases and viral infections. The risk of developing an atrial fibrillation increases with age and in those who smoke or abuse alcohol. Family history also plays a role in the risk of developing an atrial fibrillation.
In addition to a flutter or cough sensation in the chest, other symptoms of an atrial fibrillation include heart palpitations, shortness of breath, confusion, dizziness, lightheadedness, fainting and fatigue. Medline Plus notes that symptoms might begin or cease abruptly because an atrial fibrillation often starts and returns to normal on its own.
Treatment for an atrial fibrillation depends on the severity of symptoms and cause of the fibrillation. In emergency situations, electrical shock or intravenous medications might be used to restore the heart's normal rhythm. For management of an atrial fibrillation, daily medications often are prescribed that slow irregular heartbeat and prevent the atrial fibrillation from returning. When medications are not effective or the condition has a high risk of causing serious complications, a procedure called a radiofrequency ablation might be done. During this procedure, electrical signals are sent to specific areas of the heart through electrodes to destroy the areas causing the atrial fibrillation. Most people who undergo a radiofrequency ablation will need a permanent pacemaker, according to Medline Plus.
The abnormal rhythm of atrial fibrillation can cause blood to pool in the atria and form blood clots. These blood clots can travel to the brain and block blood flow, resulting in a stroke. Uncontrolled atrial fibrillation also can weaken the heart muscles and cause heart failure.
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