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Signs and symptoms of heart failure in women

Updated July 18, 2017

Heart failure in women is common, but it is often experienced differently than in men. As a result, women are advised to watch for different causes, signs and symptoms than men. While there are some established facts about gender differences related to heart failure, studies on heart failure in women are lagging. While half of all heart failure hospital admissions are women, 75 per cent of the research data comes from studies done on men, whose causes, signs and symptoms are often quite different than those in women.

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Underlying Causes

The most common causes of heart failure in women are related to diabetes, high blood pressure, and coronary artery and valvular diseases. Some women also develop atherosclerosis, narrowing of the arteries that is the most common cause of heart failure in men.

Shortness of Breath

Shortness of breath, especially when resting, is a common sign of heart failure in women. This is caused by fluid in the lungs which may precipitate coughing or wheezing as well. Symptoms related to shortness of breath are dizziness, fainting, weakness during activity and fatigue. Women with heart failure tend to have more shortness of breath and more difficulty exercising than their male counterparts.

Water Retention

Water retention and bloating are also signs and symptoms of heart failure in women. This can show up as swelling around the ankles or abdominal distension. Women with heart failure tend to have ankle swelling while their male counterparts do not.

Chest Discomfort

Heart failure in women can also produce chest discomfort that can feel like pressure, tightness, numbness or pain.

Other Symptoms

Less commonly, women with heart failure experience nonspecific symptoms such as nausea or loss of appetite. Occasionally, they have no symptoms at all. Women are advised to get an annual check-up to evaluate their heart health status.

Special Concerns for Women

Peripartum cardiomyopathy is a type of heart failure experienced by women only. This rare condition develops in the final month of pregnancy or within five months after delivery, sometimes with no known cause. Women who have had breast cancer treated with chemotherapy can develop heart failure from the toxic side effects of these drugs.

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About the Author

Kath Bee has written more than 1,000 published articles on medicine, nutrition, fitness, longevity and health law. She has been a university writing instructor. Bee holds a master's degree in English and has done post-graduate work in psychology and research methods.

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