While a heart attack often takes people by surprise, there are a number of red flags that can indicate you may have an attack soon. If you are at risk of a heart attack, you should learn more about the symptoms so you can be prepared if the worst happens.

Heart attacks can be a sudden, deadly condition. While heart attacks can hit very suddenly, there are often signs and symptoms that can occur days or even weeks before one hits.

These symptoms are often unrelated factors that put additional strain on your heart, which then causes a heart attack.

For at-risk individuals, any warning can mean the difference between life and death. These are some of the risk factors and heart attack red flags to look out for.

Causes of a Heart Attack

Causes of a Heart Attack

A heart attack is physically caused by the blockage of one or more coronary artery. This blockage is often caused by the buildup of a substance, such as cholesterol. Blockages can rupture, dumping cholesterol and other things into your bloodstream.

In response to the rupture, a blood clot forms, which can block blood flow, starving the heart of oxygen and other necessary nutrients.

Risk Factors

While anyone can have a heart attack, certain risk factors make you more likely to have a heart attack. It’s important to know what the risk factors are to better judge how likely you are to have one.

  • Age
  • Tobacco use
  • High blood pressure – including preeclampsia
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes
  • Family history
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Stress
  • Drug use
  • Autoimmune conditions

While heart attacks can occur at any age, women over the age of 55 and men over the age of 45 are more likely to have a heart attack.

Smoking tobacco can increase your blood pressure. If you live with someone who smokes or are regularly exposed to second-hand smoke, you can also experience an increased risk of a heart attack. Smoking can also increase your risk of heart disease in general. Smokeless tobacco can also increase your risk of heart disease.

High blood pressure can damage your arteries over time. This includes preeclampsia, which is a temporary increase in blood pressure due to pregnancy. If you’ve had preeclampsia in the past, but no longer suffer from it, you still have an increased risk of high blood pressure.

High cholesterol – particularly low-density lipoprotein (LDL) cholesterol (‘bad’ cholesterol) – can narrow your arteries. It can also cause the build-up of cholesterol in your artery walls.

Diabetes is also a risk factor. The inability of your body to lower your blood sugar can increase your risk of a heart attack.

There is a genetic component to heart attacks and heart disease as well. If close members of your family have suffered from a heart attack, you are more likely to have one as well.

Other factors are related to your lifestyle – people who are more physically active, have less stress and don’t use stimulating drugs are less likely to have a heart attack.

In addition to diabetes, other autoimmune conditions can increase your risk of a heart attack.


If you have one or more risk factors for a heart attack, you should see your doctor regularly.

They may put you on medicine to lower your blood pressure and cholesterol or may order additional tests to judge your risk levels. Doctors may be able to suggest specific prevention treatments that will lower your risk of a heart attack.

While a yearly check-up is good for anyone, you may need to go to the doctor’s more often, especially if they are monitoring high blood pressure or cholesterol.

Lifestyle changes are some of the biggest preventative measures you can take to lower your risk of a heart attack. Quitting smoking, exercising regularly, and trying to lower your cholesterol through dietary changes can lower your risk.

Lowering your stress and stimulant intake – especially of illegal drugs – can further help lower your risk of a heart attack.

Talk to your doctor and have regular check-ups if you’re at risk for a heart attack.

Heart Attack Red Flags

Red Flags in Men

There are a number of red flags for heart attacks that you should keep an eye out for. While some of them are associated with specific genders, others are more generalized, including the classic heart attack symptoms.

If you experience the following, you may be having a heart attack:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body pain or discomfort
  • Shortness of breath

Chest pain, pressure, or discomfort that lasts for several minutes can be a sign of a heart attack – particularly if you’re resting or there’s no other cause for the discomfort. It may be focused on the left side or more generalized.

Upper body pressure, pain, or discomfort, in general, may also be a sign of a heart attack, especially when paired with shortness of breath. This is particularly true of any pain that radiates down the left side of your body.

These are some of the more classic symptoms of a heart attack – what’s shown in movies and mass media to indicate that a character has had one – but aren’t accurate for everyone.

One symptom that’s hard to pin down but is often reported is a sense of impending doom. This symptom can resemble anxiety – stress, heart palpitations, shortness of breath, restlessness – but it can also simply be the feeling that something bad is happening.

While an impending sense of doom is not a unique heart attack symptom, if you have an impending sense of doom, you should see a doctor. It’s often a sign that your health has taken a turn for the worse.

While some studies have been done on the heart attack red flags in women, few – if any – conclusive studies have been done on trans men and women and how hormone replacement therapy might affect what symptoms you may have.

Red Flags in Men

The vast majority of known signs of a heart attack are more common in men. Most of the studies that have been done have focused on the signs and symptoms in men.

While men can experience secondary symptoms such as nausea, cold sweat, or lightheadedness, men are far more likely to experience the classic symptoms of a heart attack – namely chest pain and shortness of breath.

Red Flags in Women

Red Flags in Women

Women are less likely to survive a heart attack than men, primarily because they experience different symptoms than men.

Doctors have recently discovered that the biggest heart attack red flags in women are different from those in men. While women can – and do – have chest pains, shortness of breath, and other classic symptoms of a heart attack, women are more likely to experience different symptoms.

  • Pressure in your chest
  • Pain/discomfort in one/both arms
  • Cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Lightheadedness
  • Fatigue
  • Indigestion-like pain

These are symptoms that can be attributed to other factors, but are often associated with some chest pains and don’t go away readily.

In women over the age of 50, heart attacks are more often characterized by chest and arm pain, irregular or fast heartbeats, and cold sweats.

There are other, less common symptoms, such as anxiety, restlessness, sleeping poorly, and snoring, that can show up several days before a heart attack occurs. Women, in particular, often report that they had a symptom several days or even a week before they had a heart attack.

Early signs and symptoms of a heart attack can put additional stress on a weak heart, making it more likely to occur.

What to Do if You Suspect You’ve had a Heart Attack

Holding your heart

If you’ve experienced these symptoms, or are currently experiencing chest pains that won’t go away, it’s imperative you seek out medical care as soon as possible.

Symptoms such as shortness of breath, dizziness, difficulty breathing, or an irregular heartbeat are some of the most worrisome, in addition to chest pain. While they may not be a sign of a heart attack in every instance, they are often a sign of a medical emergency, and you should seek out medical care.

Aspirin is often cited as a way to prevent a heart attack and also to help ease the symptoms of one, though recent studies have called that wisdom into question for people who have never had a heart attack before.

If you’re experiencing increased fatigue, shortness of breath, snoring, irregular heartbeat, or other long-term symptoms, you should still seek out medical care. Going to a doctor’s office is particularly important for people who have a high risk of a heart attack.

Even if these symptoms aren’t indicative of a heart attack, they are often signs of heart disease.

Regardless of your health or family history, if you suspect you’re having a heart attack, you should seek out medical care as soon as possible. Heart attacks are deadly, especially for women, primarily because people do not seek out adequate medical treatment.

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