Heartburn or Heart Attack: When to Worry

Heartburn or Heart Attack: When to Worry

[This article was written with Dr. Mia Finkelston, a doctor on Amwell.]

Doctors see an increase in the number of heart attacks during the winter season. Similarly, heartburn rates go up this time of year, in part due to overindulgence of comfort foods, late eating and alcohol.

While it may seem like it does, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. It is caused when acidic liquid from your stomach backs up into your esophagus and inflames its lining. Often it comes from eating spicy or acidic foods, overeating, being physically active after eating or eating too late in the evening. It usually occurs after eating or while lying down or bending. The condition is not life threatening, at least not immediately.

Heart attacks, on the other hand, are more serious. Chest discomforts and shortness and breath, fatigue, even nausea and sweats are all signs of a heart attack. It’s important to know your family history or significant risk factors and pay attention to eating right (we have tips here), getting exercise, sleeping well and keeping stress loss (our tips here).

It’s been reported that 85% of hospital ER admissions for chest pain are not a heart attack. While it’s difficult to completely delineate symptoms of heartburn and a heart attack, how do you know when too much holiday cheer is just heartburn or something more serious, like a heart attack?

During a heart attack, there are symptoms present that are not felt during episodes of indigestion. This includes sweating, light headedness, dizziness, and nausea.

Heart attacks, in general, produce continuous discomfort in the center of your chest. It’s a burning, aching, squeezing, heavy sensation that can spread to other areas of the body like the arm, shoulder, upper back or jaw.  Indigestion causes temporary chest pain when taking a deep breath or coughing, but the pain is often relieved by taking antacid medications.

Heart attacks cause shortness of breath because the heart is not able to pump the blood forward, forcing it back into your lungs and thus, sparking the discomfort. People suffering from indigestion do not experience shortness of breath.

Heart attack chest pain more commonly occurs during or after exertion, and does not occur at rest. Indigestion hits shortly after a meal or in the middle of the night.

If you are suffering from a heart attack, call 9-1-1 or go to the ER. If you are suffering from heartburn and want to speak with a doctor fast, skip the ER waiting room and see a doctor on Amwell or talk with a registered dietitian about a heartburn-avoiding eating plan

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