Heart disease is a group of conditions that affect the cardiovascular system, which includes the heart and blood vessels. The early signs and symptoms of heart disease can vary depending on the type a person has.

Everyone can benefit from recognizing the early signs of heart disease, particularly people with heart health concerns.

This may include those with a personal or family history of heart disease or any of the following risk factors:

Some people may not experience any symptoms of heart disease, especially during the early stages. Others may develop multiple symptoms or complications.

Awareness of the signs of heart disease is crucial. Early detection and treatment can help slow its progression and significantly improve health outcomes.

Read on to learn more about the early signs of heart disease.

A note about sex and gender

Sex and gender exist on spectrums. This article will use the terms “male,” “female,” or both to refer to sex assigned at birth. Click here to learn more.

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It is important that people familiarise themselves with the early signs of heart disease. Early diagnosis, treatment, and management can help alleviate symptoms, prevent complications, and improve health outcomes.

Below are some potential early signs of heart disease to look out for.

Chest pain or discomfort

Chest pain or discomfort is a common symptom of various heart conditions, including angina and heart attack.

Angina refers to chest pain or discomfort that occurs when the heart muscle does not receive enough oxygen-rich blood. Exertion with physical activity typically brings on angina. This is because exertion increases oxygen demand.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), it may also be a symptom of coronary artery disease (CAD).

This condition occurs when cholesterol and wastes accumulate in the coronary arteries that supply blood to the heart, causing them to become narrow or blocked. These blockages prevent adequate blood flow to supply enough oxygen to keep up with an increased demand for oxygen.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), chest pain or discomfort is also the most common symptom of a heart attack. It can manifest as pressure, squeezing, tightness, or burning in the center of the chest that may last for several minutes or come and go intermittently.

Upper body pain

Heart-related chest pain or discomfort can spread from the chest to other areas in the upper body. This can occur during an angina episode as well as a heart attack.

Some areas where a person may feel this pain or discomfort include the:

  • jaw
  • neck
  • shoulders
  • arms, especially the left
  • back
  • stomach

Dizziness and lightheadedness

Dizziness and lightheadedness can be symptoms of several heart issues, including arrhythmias and heart attacks. These symptoms may occur during moderate to intense physical activity or during rest.

Shortness of breath

Various heart conditions can reduce blood flow to the heart and extremities, leading to fluid accumulation in the lungs. Medical professionals refer to this as cardiogenic pulmonary edema (CPE). The condition may cause various symptoms, including:

Examples of heart conditions that can cause CPE include:

CPE is a life threatening condition that requires immediate medical attention.


Heart diseases can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood and the kidneys to eliminate excess sodium and water.

These factors can contribute to fluid retention and associated swelling in areas of the lower body, such as the legs, ankles, and feet. Swelling can also occur in the abdomen.

Heart conditions that can cause swelling include:


Heart disease impairs heart function, meaning it must work harder than usual to pump blood effectively. Even with extra exertion, the heart may deliver inadequate oxygen and nutrients to the body’s organs and tissues. This can lead to muscle weakness and fatigue.

A person with heart disease may experience weakness and fatigue even after mild physical activity or following a full night’s sleep. This may make it difficult for the person to engage in everyday activities.

Heart conditions that can impair heart function and trigger fatigue include:

Nausea or vomiting

Nausea and vomiting can be symptoms of certain types of heart disease, such as heart attack and heart failure.

Heart disease can affect anyone. However, the signs and symptoms may vary according to a person’s sex assigned at birth. Learning about these differences can help prevent delayed and missed diagnoses.

Common symptoms

The AHA notes the following common symptoms of a heart attack in a person of any sex:

  • pain or an uncomfortable sensation of pressure, fullness, or squeezing in the center of the chest
  • pain in one or both arms
  • lightheadedness
  • sweating or clamminess

Symptom differences

Although chest pain is the most common symptom of a heart attack among all people, a 2021 review suggests those assigned as female at birth may be more likely to have a heart attack without experiencing chest pain.

Females also more commonly present with additional nonchest pain symptoms than males, regardless of the presence of chest pain.

Additionally, females appear to be more likely to experience the following symptoms:

  • shortness of breath, with or without chest discomfort
  • pain in the back or jaw
  • nausea and vomiting

It is important to note that although certain heart attack symptoms are more common in those assigned as female at birth than others, they can affect anyone.

As such, anyone who thinks they may be experiencing heart attack symptoms should seek emergency medical attention.

For more science-backed resources on heart health, visit our dedicated hub.

Misdiagnosis and gender bias

Research from the British Heart Foundation suggests females may be 50% more likely than males to receive an incorrect diagnosis following a heart attack.

A 2018 study among people aged 18–55 years who had treatment for a heart attack in a hospital found that although the symptoms were similar for all participants, females and their healthcare professionals were less likely to attribute their initial symptoms to heart disease.

Additionally, the AHA states that females often believe their heart attack symptoms to be a result of a less severe condition, such as acid reflux or flu.

Some research suggests they are also more likely than males to perceive heart attack symptoms as due to stress or anxiety.

Learn more about gender bias in medical diagnosis.

Heart disease is an umbrella term for various conditions affecting the cardiovascular system. Examples include coronary artery disease (CAD), heart attack, and heart failure.

Although chest pain and discomfort are well-known symptoms of heart disease, it is important to recognize other potential signs and symptoms. These may include fluid retention and swelling, shortness of breath, and fatigue.

Compared with males, females may be more likely to experience additional symptoms, such as nausea and vomiting.

Early diagnosis of heart disease helps minimize its progression and prevent worsening symptoms and complications. As such, anyone who experiences potential signs of heart disease should consult a doctor promptly for a diagnosis.