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How to spot the signs of heart disease in women

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The death rate from heart disease among women in Ireland is higher than in most other European countries.

One of the contributing factors may be the failure to recognise the symptoms of a heart attack in female patients who seek help in our hospital emergency departments.

This is because they may have what are known as a "atypical symptoms" which leave doctors and paramedics confused.

In a bid to reduce the chances of women with heart disease being misdiagnosed doctors in all hospital A&Es have now been issued with guidelines to help them spot the signs of heart attack in women and administer the correct treatment.

The document was jointly produced by the Women's Health Council and the Irish Association for Emergency Medicine, the organisation representing A&E specialists.

It points out there is a "false perception" that heart disease is a predominantly male condition. Yet it is more likely to kill women than breast cancer.

In 2005 there were 2,229 deaths of women from heart disease compared to 387 from breast cancer. Heart attack symptoms vary from patient to patient and women may have different warning signs to men.

Some women who are older and diabetic may not have the classic chest pain to alert ambulance men and emergency doctors.

Common symptoms for men and women include central chest pain. This pain can spread to the neck or jaw.

Some can feel sick or sweaty as well as having central chest pain. They may also feel short of breath.

Less common symptoms which may be experienced by women include:



  • A pain or heavy feeling in the chest.
  • A mild discomfort in the chest that makes you feel generally unwell.
  • The pain in the chest can spread to the back or stomach.
  • Some people say that the chest pain feels like a bad episode of indigestion.
  • The patient can feel a bit light-headed or dizzy as well as having chest pain.


The report said women have been shown in several studies to report more back, jaw and neck pain and nausea than men.

The guidelines for reducing the risk of heart disease include:



  • Stopping smoking.
  • Controlling high blood pressure.
  • Reducing blood cholesterol levels.
  • Keeping physically active.
  • Achieving and maintaining a healthy weight.
  • If you have diabetes, control your blood glucose as much as possible.
  • Hormonal changes leave women more at risk of heart disease after the menopause.