Is it Heartburn or a Heart Attack?

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You’ve just enjoyed a big dinner with friends and you, or one of your companions, begins suffering severe burning in the chest. We typically think, “oh, that’s heartburn.” But is it? It’s often difficult to distinguish between symptoms of heartburn and those of a heart attack. The stakes are too high to dismiss it out of hand.

A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood to the heart is blocked. When that blockage causes the heart to stop beating, it results in a cardiac arrest. Both conditions require immediate medical attention.

The Differences between Heartburn and Heart Attack

Heartburn is a completely different condition. It’s actually a symptom of acid reflux, which is stomach acids rising up into the esophagus. Our stomach is made to tolerate acids, our esophagus isn’t. Those rising acids cause a painful burning in our upper abdomen or lower chest. This and other symptoms of heartburn are similar enough that they’re often confused with those of a heart attack, and vice-versa.

Heartburn Risk Factors and Symptoms

Risk factors for heartburn include:

  • Being pregnant or overweight
  • Smoking
  • Eating fried or fatty foods
  • Eating close to bedtime
  • Drinking coffee or alcohol

Some medications and supplements such as aspirin, ibuprofen, prednisone, iron and magnesium can also cause heartburn.

Heartburn symptoms include:

  • A burning sensation that moves from the upper abdomen to the lower chest
  • Occurring after eating, bending over or lying down; when the stomach acid can flow up into the esophagus more easily
  • Sour taste or small amounts of undigested food rising into the back of your throat
  • Typically, relieved by antacids

Heart Attack Risk Factors and Symptoms

Risk factors for a heart attack include:

  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • High cholesterol
  • Smoking
  • Being overweight

Common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain that feels like crushing pressure
  • Sudden onset, usually following physical exertion
  • Intense heaviness on, or tightness in, the chest
  • Pain in the arm, jaw, neck or back
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Cold sweat
  • Feeling tired, dizzy or lightheaded

Pain from a heart attack may come and go but lasts more than a few minutes and can sometimes be relieved with lying down.

Don’t Leave it to Chance

It’s often impossible for even the best healthcare providers to tell the difference between heartburn and heart attack without an echocardiogram and tests. If you’re at all in doubt about your condition or that of a loved one, call 911 immediately.

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