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Heartburn or Heart Attack: How to Tell the Difference

February 14, 2017


It’s a common reaction to jump to the worst-case scenario when you feel pain or discomfort in your chest area, and it’s easy to misinterpret what your body may be telling you. Luckily, a few important details can help you know how seriously to take your pain.

First, let’s get one important reminder out of the way: Despite the misleading name, heartburn doesn’t actually have anything to do with your heart.

So, what exactly is heartburn? Named for the burning sensation heartburn sufferers feel in their chest, heartburn is actually caused by stomach acid in your esophagus. However, since your esophagus is located close to your heart, heartburn symptoms are often very similar to the chest pains someone having a heart attack may experience.

Here’s where the tricky part comes in: How can you tell the difference between heartburn or heart attack? Before you panic, ask yourself these three questions.

3 Questions to Ask If You Aren’t Sure Whether You’re Having a Heart Attack or Heartburn

Do I have other symptoms?

While the symptoms of a heart attack can vary from person to person—especially in women—other symptoms besides chest pains can indicate what you’re experiencing may be serious. Seek immediate medical attention if your chest pains are accompanied by:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Lightheadedness or extreme weakness and fatigue
  • Additional pain in your arms, neck or jaw

On the contrary, taking an antacid—or even simply belching—can often abate chest pain caused by heartburn.

Did I just eat a big meal?

Heartburn most commonly occurs after eating a big meal. Foods like raw onions, garlic, tomatoes, citrus fruits or meals with a lot of spice are common heartburn triggers. For many people, symptoms are more likely to occur if they lie down too soon after eating. Heartburn is also often—but not always—accompanied by a sour taste in your mouth or reflux regurgitation.

Is it better to be safe than sorry?

The answer to this question is always a resounding YES. If you can’t confidently determine the pain in your chest is heartburn, it is always best to seek medical attention and allow a doctor to determine for you. When it comes to chest pains, there is no such thing as an overreaction.

And if you suffer from chronic heartburn, you should also talk to your doctor about a treatment plan. While occasional heartburn isn’t serious, it can cause significant health problems—like respiratory problems, damage to the esophagus and even cancer—over time if left untreated. Luckily, most people find relief with over-the-counter medication and dietary changes.

If you’re concerned about your heart attack risk—or have suffered one before—and want to do everything you can to ensure your future health, it’s probably time to make an appointment with a cardiologist.

Cardiology Tests to Predict the Risk of Heart Attack