Heartburn vs. heart attack: How to tell the difference

November 30, 2023 | by NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health
Categories: Healthy Driven Hearts

Have you ever eaten a spicy meal and felt a burning pain in your chest afterward?

It can be unsettling, especially if you worry that it means something’s wrong with your heart.

Is the burning pain heartburn or a heart attack?

Let’s start with what causes heartburn: Acid reflux, or acid indigestion, which is when stomach acid creeps back up into your esophagus or throat.

Eating spicy or acidic food can trigger acid reflux, as well as alcohol, coffee and some medications.

Heartburn can feel like a burning pain in your chest and can include things like a sour taste in your mouth, burping or even regurgitating food.

Since the stomach and esophagus are located near the center of the chest, the pain can make us anxious that something’s going on with our heart.

“The pain caused by a heart attack can feel like heartburn, but heart attacks often include additional symptoms you wouldn’t feel with acid reflux,” said Gregory Mishkel, MD, a cardiologist with NorthShore Medical Group, part of NorthShore – Edward-Elmhurst Health

The symptoms of a heart attack often include:

  • Chest pain. It can be a feeling of fullness, pressure, squeezing or pain that continues longer than a few minutes or stops and starts again.
  • Pain in other body parts, including the arms, back or neck
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Sweating

If you think you or someone else might be having a heart attack, call 911. If you aren’t sure, err on the side of caution and seek medical care.

“Women seem to have more atypical symptoms of a heart attack as compared to men, so it’s important to be aware that the classic chest pain syndrome of a man clutching his chest, might not be always present,” Dr. Mishkel said. “Seeking care is always the right thing, particularly if it’s the first time or there are the other associated signs or symptoms.”

The burning feeling of acid reflux will likely dissipate in minutes or hours as the last food you ate leaves your stomach. Over-the-counter antacids can help ease the pain as well.

But if heartburn is accompanied by other troubling symptoms, be sure to seek medical care. 

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