When you think of a heart attack, symptoms like chest pain and shortness of breath probably come to mind. But that's not always the case for women. In fact, many women exhibit such atypical symptoms that they don't even realize they're having a heart attack.

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart gets blocked, most often as the result of either undiagnosed or untreated heart disease. The sooner you seek treatment, the better your chance of surviving. Unfortunately, if the symptoms are atypical, or unusual, then women may not seek medical care as fast as they should and the implications are more severe.

Heart attack symptoms in men vs. women

When men have a heart attack, they tend to experience symptom such as:

  • Chest pain and pressure
  • Shortness of breath
  • Discomfort in the arms, shoulders or neck 

As with men, the most common heart attack symptom in women is chest pain. But not all women have chest pain and women are more likely than men to have other, less obvious symptoms, including:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Pressure or pain in the lower chest or upper abdomen
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or fainting
  • Extreme fatigue
  • Nausea and vomiting
  • Back or jaw pain
  • Heartburn or indigestion 

Why women experience different symptoms

Although medical experts don't know definitively why women experience different heart attack symptoms, it is possible there are psychosocial factors at play.

Traditionally, women tend to take on more activities -- like work, family, kids and more -- that may lead to anxiety, worry, depression or stress which may mask classical symptoms of a heart attack. In other words, women may assume their symptoms are caused by stress, or something else, and delay getting help. Or they may ignore the symptoms entirely.

Women, hear this

The first thing women need to understand is that heart disease is your number-one killer. It can happen to anyone.

While there are certain risk factors you can't control, like genetics, there are some things you can do to lower your chances of developing heart disease.

You need to maintain a healthy lifestyle. This includes exercising, not smoking, drinking alcohol only in moderation or not drinking it at all, and controlling high blood pressure or diabetes if you have those conditions.

But the most important thing you can do as a woman to protect your heart is to listen to your body. Whenever you're in doubt that you could be having a heart attack or something else, the best advice is to seek medical care without delay.