Is That Pain in Your Chest Heartburn or a Heart Attack?

Knowing the difference may not be as easy as you think

Is That Pain in Your Chest Heartburn or a Heart Attack?

Although heartburn has nothing to do with your heart, its most common symptom — chest pain — often is the most apparent sign of a heart attack too. So how do you know whether you need to reach for an antacid or call 911?

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The main symptoms of a heart attack and heartburn sometimes are nearly indistinguishable, says cardiovascular medicine specialist Mouin Abdallah, MD. Sometimes medical testing is necessary to determine what’s going on, he says.

One clue that it might be a heart attack is if your chest pain is accompanied by shortness of breath or sweating. If the chest pain persists after you take an over-the-counter heartburn remedy, Dr. Abdallah recommends seeking medical attention right away.

“The worst thing you can do is ignore your symptoms and think they will just disappear,” he says. “The best thing to do is call 911 and get checked by a medical professional to help prevent long-term health effects.”

He also suggests taking an aspirin if there are delays in getting to professional medical care. Aspirin helps to thin the blood in case you are having a heart attack. 

Look beyond chest pain symptoms

When you have a heart attack, it’s because one of the coronary arteries that provide blood to the heart is blocked. The blockage obstructs the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart.

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When you think of a heart attack, you may picture a person clutching their chest and collapsing from sudden, severe pain. But the symptoms of a heart attack often are much more subtle. This is especially true for women, Dr. Abdallah says.

study by researchers at the University of British Columbia showed women are slightly less likely than men to experience chest pain during a heart attack.

Instead, they often suffer from subtle symptoms such as:

  • Pain in the arms, neck or jaw
  • Sweating or “cold sweat”
  • Unusual fatigue
  • Feelings of fullness, indigestion or choking (also symptoms of heartburn)
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, extreme weakness or anxiety

People with diabetes who are having a heart attack often have atypical or minimal symptoms, Dr. Abdallah says. If you have diabetes, you should seek medical attention for even slight chest or stomach pain or discomfort.

What happens when you have heartburn?

While its name suggests otherwise, heartburn has no impact on your heart.

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Heartburn, or acid indigestion, happens when your stomach acid flows back into your esophagus. It causes an uncomfortable burning feeling or pain in your chest that can move up to your neck and throat.

The esophagus is located close to the heart, so it’s often difficult for people to distinguish where the pain is coming from, Dr. Abdallah says.

This is why it’s important for a doctor to rule out a heart attack if over-the-counter antacids don’t work or if you experience the less pronounced symptoms, he says.

If left untreated, heartburn can cause more serious problems such as inflammation and narrowing of the esophagus, respiratory problems, chronic cough — or even cancer.

The good news: Several types of over-the-counter medicines are available to treat heartburn.

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