In a recent Today show segment, Chantrise Holliman, a mother, wife, and heart health educator living in Georgia, shared the story of her heart attack and the seemingly harmless symptoms that accompanied it.
Holliman experienced nausea, vomiting and mild chest pressure. The first two symptoms – which are not usually associated with a heart attack – led him to believe the sensation had more to do with his dinner the night before than a serious medical problem.
Like Holliman, many people don’t know that stomach symptoms can actually be a sign of a heart attack. While not the most common warning sign (chest pain is most commonly reported), nausea is also common during a heart attack, according to Dr. Sean Heffron, cardiologist at NYU Langone Health.
This “tends to depend on which blood vessels in the heart are affected,” explains Heffron. Additionally, nausea is more commonly seen in women, Heffron said, as is vomiting.
Other signs of a heart attack in women include jaw pain, neck pain, chest discomfort, upper abdominal pain, back pain, and excessive fatigue, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“It’s important to hear stories like this, because a lot of women think that it has to be like, ‘I grabbed my chest and fell to the ground like you see in the movies,’ and it can be more subtle,” Dr. Tara Narula, a cardiologist and NBC News medical contributor, told Today.
Heart attacks can look very different in women than in men, which means sufferers and doctors sometimes overlook them. But it’s important to recognize the signs, especially because heart disease “is the leading cause of death for women in this country,” Narula told Today. “One woman every 80 seconds dies from cardiovascular disease.”
How to tell if your nausea is part of a heart attack
“As far as we know, it’s rare for (nausea to be) the only symptom of a heart attack,” explained Heffron. In Holliman’s case, for example, he also said he felt pressure in his chest.
“And of course, heart attacks are not the most common cause of nausea,” says Heffron. Food poisoning, stomach flu, and motion sickness are more common causes.
So, you don’t need to panic if you feel nauseous later. But if you feel additional heart attack symptoms along with nausea or vomiting – such as chest pain, sweating, heart palpitations, or dizziness – this may be a cause for concern.
This also applies to someone with risk factors for heart disease such as high blood pressure, high cholesterol or diabetes, Heffron said.
If there are no additional symptoms, nausea may not be too worrying. “Sometimes, nausea is the only symptom, but I think that’s the exception,” Heffron says. “That’s not common.”
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Nausea as a symptom of a heart attack occurs more often in women.
How to maintain heart health
It’s easy to ignore symptoms that you don’t think are indicative of a heart attack, but it’s important to understand the signs of a heart attack and how they appear in women.
Additionally, you should know what you can do to take the best care of your heart. Heffron says you can use the American Heart Association’s Life’s Essential 8 checklist as a resource for maintaining or improving your cardiovascular health.
Best practices include eating a diet rich in whole foods, fruit, vegetables, and lean protein; get enough exercise; managing factors such as cholesterol, blood pressure, and blood sugar; get enough sleep; and refrain from smoking. All of these behaviors can help keep your heart healthy.
“Achieving optimal cardiovascular health really involves focusing on these eight metrics,” Heffron says.
If you feel unwell, don’t ignore your symptoms, no matter how small they are.
“I don’t want to make a big deal out of it and… scare people (by saying) all the nausea is a heart attack. That’s actually not the case,” Heffron said. “But chest pain is not the only symptom of a heart attack.”
Other less obvious signs could be your strongest symptoms, and it’s important that you get checked out if you suspect it.
“If you’re feeling unwell and worried about what’s going on, and in particular, if you have cardiovascular risk factors… then that should be a reason to see a doctor,” Heffron said. “Don’t hesitate if you have any concerns.”