Is It a Heart Attack or Just Heartburn?

Person with hand over abdomen

September 22, 2021

Clinical Contributors to this story:
Deepak Singh, M.D.
Brian M. Salata, M.D.
Marian M. Vandyck Acquah, M.D.

You’ve just polished off a large beef and cheese burrito and suddenly it hits: a burning sensation, right around your chest and your neck. It’s heartburn, right? Or could this be something much more dangerous, like a heart attack?

It’s easy to confuse the two because the symptoms can feel very similar, says Deepak Singh, M.D., a cardiothoracic surgeon at Jersey Shore University Medical Center. “Depending on where the heart attack is happening, the type of pain can mimic heartburn and vice versa,” he says.

That being said, if it is a heart attack, it’s critical that you address it ASAP. “If a heart attack is treated promptly, the damage done to the heart muscle can be minimized or even totally avoided,” says Brian Salata, M.D., internal medicine specialist at JFK University Medical Center. “Time is critical if you are having a heart attack.”

Keep in mind that the movie version of a heart attack (chest clutching, difficulty breathing) and a real-life heart attack may look and feel very different. Add to that, heart attack symptoms can vary from person to person, including based on gender, and even from heart attack to heart attack.

So how do you know if it’s heartburn or a heart attack? Here are a few questions to ask yourself:

Did you just eat?

Heartburn often strikes after a fatty or spicy meal. Eating late can also worsen acid reflux, which can cause heartburn. The pain tends to get worse if you lie down or bend over. You also might have a sour taste in your mouth when stomach acid travels up to your esophagus.

Do you have chest pain and discomfort?

These are the most common symptoms of a heart attack, for both men and women, young and old. But there are other symptoms to look out for, as well. Women are more likely to experience shortness of breath; a squeezing, aching or sharp pain in the chest or arms that may spread to the neck, back or jaw; unexplained nausea, heartburn; vomiting; sweating; fatigue; irregular pulse;

lightheadedness; or sudden dizziness.

Do you have any risk factors for a heart attack?

If you do, a heart attack may be more likely. These factors include high blood pressure, diabetes, high cholesterol, obesity, smoking and a family history of heart disease. Also, heart disease is more common in men over 45 and in women over 55. Emotional stress can be a trigger of heart attack in women.

The bottom line is this: If you think you may be having a heart attack, call 911. “If you’re thinking about it enough, that should answer the question,” says Marian Vandyck Acquah, M.D., cardiologist in Teaneck, New Jersey, adding that doctors would much rather see you and diagnose you with heartburn than have you die of a heart attack at home.

One more important tip to keep in mind: Don’t ever try to drive yourself to the hospital. Call 911. “While the ambulance is en route, they can get your EKG, send it to the hospital and have everyone ready to treat you the minute you reach the emergency room,” Dr. Singh says.

Next Steps & Resources:


The material provided through HealthU is intended to be used as general information only and should not replace the advice of your physician. Always consult your physician for individual care.

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