When you think about a heart attack, you probably picture someone clutching their chest and falling to the ground with their breath totally knocked out of them. But the truth is, especially for women, symptoms of a heart attack can be much more subtle, which means those symptoms can often go untreated.

Although heart attacks are often thought of to be more common in men, heart disease is actually the number one cause of death in Australia and the second leading cause of death for women behind dementia. But even though heart attacks are so common in women, there’s still one big problem: “There’s the perception that a woman would never think she’s having a heart attack, so she’s going to think it’s everything else but,” says cardiologist Dr Marla Mendelson.

In order to be able to recognise when it could be happening to you, it’s important to first understand what exactly a heart attack most commonly is. “Essentially what’s happening is that the arteries in the heart are unable to provide sufficient blood flow to the working heart muscle, and most commonly this is due to atherosclerosis, this plaque that builds up in the arteries,” says cardiologist Dr Erin Donnelly Michos. And although plaque naturally builds up over time, a heart attack occurs when that plaque ruptures suddenly, says Dr Michos. “The plaque ruptures, and a clot forms suddenly,” she says. “And there can be a complete obstruction of blood flow down the artery of heart.” When that obstruction or blockage happens, it causes the heart muscle to begin to die. “This is why it’s an emergency, because if the heart muscle dies, it doesn’t repair itself,” says Dr Michos. “Time is muscle.”

That means it’s crucial for women to be able to detect some of the symptoms they might be experiencing during a heart attack. Below are some of the most common heart attack symptoms all women should be able to recognise.

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