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Frequently Asked Questions

Women and Heart Disease -- Frequently Asked Questions

Do women need to worry about heart disease?

Yes. Among all U.S. women who die each year, one in four dies of heart disease. In 2004, nearly 60 percent more women died of cardiovascular disease (both heart disease and stroke) than from all cancers combined. The older a woman gets, the more likely she is to get heart disease. But women of all ages should be concerned about heart disease. All women should take steps to prevent heart disease.

Both men and women have heart attacks, but more women who have heart attacks die from them. Treatments can limit heart damage but they must be given as soon as possible after a heart attack starts. Ideally, treatment should start within one hour of the first symptoms.

If you think you're having a heart attack, call 911 right away. Tell the operator your symptoms and that you think you're having a heart attack.

Do women of color need to worry about heart disease?

Yes. African American and Hispanic American/Latina women should be concerned about getting heart disease because they tend to have more risk factors than white women. These risk factors include obesity, lack of physical activity, high blood pressure, and diabetes. If you're a woman of color, take steps to reduce your risk factors.

How do I know if I have heart disease?

Heart disease often has no symptoms. But, there are some signs to watch for. Chest or arm pain or discomfort can be a symptom of heart disease and a warning sign of a heart attack. Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air), dizziness, nausea (feeling sick to your stomach), abnormal heartbeats, or feeling very tired also are signs. Talk with your doctor if you're having any of these symptoms. Tell your doctor that you are concerned about your heart. Your doctor will take a medical history, do a physical exam, and may order tests.

What are the signs of a heart attack?

For both women and men, the most common sign of a heart attack is:

  • Pain or discomfort in the center of the chest. The pain or discomfort can be mild or strong. It can last more than a few minutes, or it can go away and come back.

Other common signs of a heart attack include:

  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
  • Shortness of breath (feeling like you can't get enough air). The shortness of breath often occurs before or along with the chest pain or discomfort.
  • Nausea (feeling sick to your stomach) or vomiting
  • Feeling faint or woozy
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat

Women are more likely than men to have these other common signs of a heart attack:  shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, and pain in the back, neck, or jaw.

Women are also more likely to have less common signs of a heart attack, including:

  • Heartburn
  • Loss of appetite
  • Feeling tired or weak
  • Coughing
  • Heart flutters

Sometimes the signs of a heart attack happen suddenly, but they can also develop slowly, over hours, days, and even weeks before a heart attack occurs.

The more heart attack signs that you have, the more likely it is that you are having a heart attack. Also, if you've already had a heart attack, your symptoms may not be the same for another one. Even if you're not sure you're having a heart attack, you should still have it checked out.

If you think you, or someone else, may be having a heart attack, wait no more than a few minutes-five at most-before calling 911.

If you think you are having a heart attack, do not try to drive yourself to the hospital.  Call 911 for help.

One of my family members had a heart attack. Does that mean I'll have one too?

If your dad or brother had a heart attack before age 55, or if your mom or sister had one before age 65, you're more likely to develop heart disease. This does not mean you will have a heart attack. It means you should take extra good care of your heart to keep it healthy.

Does taking birth control pills increase my risk for heart disease?

Taking birth control pills is generally safe for young, healthy women if they do not smoke. But birth control pills can pose heart disease risks for some women, especially women older than 35; women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol; and women who smoke. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about the pill.

If you're taking birth control pills, watch for signs of trouble, including:

  • Eye problems such as blurred or double vision
  • Pain in the upper body or arm
  • Bad headaches
  • Problems breathing
  • Spitting up blood
  • Swelling or pain in the leg
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Breast lumps
  • Unusual (not normal) heavy bleeding from your vagina

If you have any of these symptoms, call 911.

Does using the birth control patch increase my risk for heart disease?

The patch is generally safe for young, healthy women. The patch can pose heart disease risks for some women, especially women older than 35; women with high blood pressure, diabetes, or high cholesterol; and women who smoke.

Recent studies show that women who use the patch may be exposed to more estrogen than women who use the birth control pill. Estrogen is the female hormone in birth control pills and the patch that keeps you from getting pregnant. Research is underway to see if the risk for blood clots is higher in patch users. Blood clots can lead to heart attack or stroke. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about the patch.

If you're using the patch, watch for signs of trouble, including:

  • Eye problems such as blurred or double vision
  • Pain in the upper body or arm
  • Bad headaches
  • Problems breathing
  • Spitting up blood
  • Swelling or pain in the leg
  • Yellowing of the skin or eyes
  • Breast lumps
  • Unusual (not normal) heavy bleeding from your vagina
  • If you have any of these symptoms, call 911.

    Does menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) increase a woman's risk for heart disease?

    Menopausal hormone therapy (MHT) can help with some symptoms of menopause, including hot flashes, vaginal dryness, mood swings, and bone loss, but there are risks, too. For some women, taking hormones can increase their chances of having a heart attack or stroke. If you decide to use hormones, use them at the lowest dose that helps for the shortest time needed. Talk with your doctor if you have questions about MHT.

    For more information

    For more information on heart disease, please call womenshealth.gov at 1-800-994-9662 or click here for a list of patient resources.

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