Chest pain is a symptom of many bodily ailments, including heart attack and heartburn.
But while heartburn can ruin your day, a heart attack can end your life—so learning how to differentiate between the two may help you determine when you can treat your symptoms at home, and when you may need to see a doctor.
In this article, I’ll describe the differences between heartburn and heart attack, including the differing symptoms, causes, and treatment.
I’ll also talk about how you can prevent both, and cover where the symptoms and treatments can overlap.
Finally, I’ll explain when you should see a doctor for urgent care.
Symptoms of a Heart Attack vs. Heartburn
Heart attack and heartburn can cause chest pain, and it can be especially difficult to tell the chest pain of severe heartburn from that of a heart attack.
Even experienced physicians can’t always tell the difference using a physical exam or medical history alone.
Here are some of the key similarities and differences that will help you differentiate between the two:
The most notable shared symptom of a heart attack and heartburn is chest pain and discomfort.
Though less common, both can also cause:
There are a few key differences in the chest pain of a heart attack versus chest pain caused by heartburn: Chest pain caused by a heart attack (also referred to as angina) is often described as a feeling of tightness, constriction, or pressure.
By comparison, chest pain caused by heartburn is more likely to feel like a burning sensation.
The location of the pain can be different, too: Chest pain from a heart attack is likely to be felt in the center or left side of the chest, whereas heartburn pain will more likely be felt in the center of the chest.
Finally, chest pain from heartburn may get worse when you’re lying down or bending over. Still, it can be difficult to distinguish between the two based on chest pain alone.
Here are some additional symptoms that can help differentiate between heart attack and heartburn:
Symptoms of a Heart Attack
- Pain that can spread to the shoulders, neck, and arms
- Irregular or rapid heartbeat
- Shortness of breath
- Cold sweat
- Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness
- Symptoms that may appear after physical exertion or stress
Symptoms of Heartburn
- Regurgitation, or the feeling of fluid or food coming up into the chest
- Pain that gets worse when lying down or bending over
- Bitter, hot, sour, or acidic taste in the mouth
- Pain or discomfort that appear after a large or spicy meal
- Difficulty swallowing
- Pain that can move into your throat, but doesn’t usually radiate to your shoulders, neck and arms
- Chronic dry cough, especially at night
Causes of Heart Attack vs. Heartburn
Another way to help distinguish between heart attack and heartburn is identifying the underlying cause:
Causes of a Heart Attack
Genetics, lifestyle, age, and health conditions can increase your risk of a heart attack.
According to the CDC, about half of all Americans have at least one of one of the three key risk factors for heart disease:
- High blood pressure
- High blood cholesterol
Other specific causes of heart attack include:
- Coronary heart disease: When plaque blocks the flow of oxygen-rich blood to a section of heart muscle.
- Coronary artery spasm: Less common, a severe spasm of a coronary artery can cut off blood flow and cause a heart attack. Some causes of a coronary artery spasm include drug use (cocaine), emotional stress or pain, exposure to extreme cold, and smoking.
Causes of Heartburn
In many cases, heartburn is caused by lifestyle and eating habits, including what, when, and how much you eat.
But it can also be caused by medical conditions, including:
- Anxiety or depression
- Acid reflux (GER and GERD)
- Peptic ulcers
- Inflammation of the stomach (gastritis)
- Hiatal hernia
Treatment of Heart Attack vs. Heartburn
Treatment of Heart Attack
If you think you may be experiencing a heart attack, it’s important to act fast and call 9-1-1 for immediate help.
The sooner you’re able to get treatment, the more likely you can prevent or limit damage to the heart muscle.
Once a diagnosis is confirmed by a medical professional, the two main treatments often used are clot-busting medicines, which work to dissolve blood clots in coronary arteries, and percutaneous coronary intervention, a nonsurgical procedure used to open blocked or narrowed coronary arteries.
Other treatment options include:
- Medicines: Your doctor may prescribe ACE inhibitors, anticlotting medicines, anticoagulants, statins, or beta blockers to reduce strain on your heart, prevent future blood clots, or lower your cholesterol.
- Medical procedures: Your doctor may recommend a bypass surgical procedure to provide a new route for blood to flow to your heart.
- Lifestyle changes: Long-term treatment may include heart-healthy lifestyle recommendations like managing stress, regular physical exercise, heart-healthy eating, and quitting smoking.
- Cardiac rehabilitation: Most people recovering from a heart attack will benefit from a medically supervised rehabilitation program. Rehabilitation may include education, counseling, and physical training.
Treatment of Heartburn
Over-the-counter (OTC) medications and home remedies (including lifestyle changes) can help treat heartburn, but it may take trial and error to figure out what works best for you. If you still experience symptoms after two weeks, see your doctor, who may recommend prescription medication. Treatment options include:
- Antacid medicines: These are usually the first-line recommendation. They work by neutralizing acids in your stomach. Examples of OTC antacids that you can try include: calcium carbonate (TUMS), simethicone (Mylanta), and sodium bicarbonate (Alka-Seltzer).
- H2 blockers: Available as OTC or prescription medication to reduce how much acid your stomach produces.
- Proton pump inhibitors (PPIs): Often recommended for those who also experience heartburn, PPIs also decrease stomach acid production.
Prevention of Heart Attack vs. Heartburn
There are some shared lifestyle changes that can help prevent both heart attacks and heartburn:
- Quitting smoking
- Maintaining a recommended weight for your body
- Regular exercise
But there are some differences in preventative methods, too.
To help prevent heart attack, experts recommend:
- Testing your cholesterol levels
- Controlling your blood pressure
- Managing diabetes and other chronic health conditions
- Taking medicines as directed
For heartburn, other preventative measures include:
- Don’t eat or drink close to bedtime
- Avoid spicy or acidic foods (citrus, tomatoes), alcohol, caffeine, and greasy and fatty foods
- Avoid certain pain relievers, including aspirin, naproxen sodium, and ibuprofen
When to See a Doctor
If you suspect you’re having a heart attack, seek medical attention immediately.
But if you’re experiencing heartburn, you may be able to treat your symptoms from home.
If any of your symptoms last longer than two weeks, see your doctor.
How K Health Can Help
Abdominal pain and chest pain caused by heartburn can be treated. Did you know you can get affordable primary care with the K Health app?
Download K to check your symptoms, explore conditions and treatments, and if needed text with a doctor in minutes. K Health’s AI-powered app is HIPAA compliant and based on 20 years of clinical data.
Frequently Asked Questions
K Health has strict sourcing guidelines and relies on peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and medical associations. We avoid using tertiary references.
Heart Disease Facts. (2021). https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/facts.htm
Acid Reflux. (n.d.). https://gi.org/topics/acid-reflux/
Angina. (n.d.). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/angina
Heart Attack. (n.d.). https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-attack
Heart Attack. (n.d.). https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_attack.htm