Is your chest pain from heartburn, or is it a heart attack?
These two conditions can cause similar symptoms, but they’re very different – especially when it comes to treatment. While heartburn will probably happen to everyone at some point, a heart attack is a medical emergency that can be life-threatening.
Learn the symptoms of each condition and find out what to do if you think you or someone else is having a heart attack.
What Is Heartburn?
Heartburn is a burning pain in your upper chest, just behind your breastbone.
Despite its name, heartburn actually has nothing to do with your heart. It happens when food or stomach acid rises up into your esophagus, the tube that connects your throat to your stomach.
Most people will have heartburn now and then, especially after eating a large meal or certain kinds of foods, such as chocolate, fried or fatty foods, or alcohol. Heartburn is also common during pregnancy as the uterus grows and puts pressure on the stomach.
Heartburn can be a symptom of several conditions such as acid reflux, or gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD).
GERD is a chronic form of acid reflux that occurs when the lower esophageal sphincter doesn’t close properly when food arrives in the stomach. This results in acid washing into the upper areas of the esophagus and into the throat and mouth, giving you a sour taste.
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What Does Heartburn Feel Like?
Heartburn usually feels like a burning sensation that may start in your belly and move upward toward your chest. The pain usually gets worse if you lie down or bend over.
Symptoms of heartburn can include:
- A feeling of burning, warmth, or pain in your chest that occurs after eating.
- Pain that worsens when you lie down or bend over.
- A sour taste in your mouth.
How long does heartburn last?
Occasional heartburn is common and usually poses no cause for alarm. Each bout of heartburn usually resolves within a day and most people can manage the discomfort of heartburn on their own by avoiding certain foods or taking over-the-counter (OTC) medications, such as antacids.
If you are pregnant or have heartburn on a regular basis, you should talk to your doctor about the best way to treat it. In some cases, frequent heartburn can be a symptom of a more serious digestive disorder.
Treatments for heartburn
The most common way to soothe heartburn is to take an over-the-counter (OTC) antacid, such as:
If you have frequent heartburn, your doctor may prescribe acid-reducing medications or a surgical procedure.
There are numerous ways to prevent heartburn before it occurs, such as:
- Not smoking.
- Slowing down your eating.
- Avoiding alcohol and foods high in acid.
- Sleeping on your left side.
- Not going to bed on a full stomach.
- Avoiding overeating.
What Is a Heart Attack?
A heart attack is a stoppage of blood flow to the heart caused by a blockage. The blockage is often a buildup of fat or cholesterol which forms plaque in the coronary arteries that feed the heart.
When blood flow to your heart is blocked, it causes damage to your heart muscle. A heart attack is a medical emergency that can be life-threatening, so if you think you’re having a heart attack, call 911 right away.
What Does a Heart Attack Feel Like?
A heart attack feels different for each person. Some people have mild symptoms while others have severe chest pain. Some people have no symptoms at all.
Although some heart attacks strike suddenly, most people have warning signs and symptoms in the hours, days, or weeks before.
Symptoms of a heart attack
Common heart attack symptoms can include:
- Chest pain or discomfort.
- Pain or discomfort in your jaw, neck, stomach, or one or both arms.
- Shortness of breath.
- Cold sweat.
And women can have different symptoms besides the ones listed above, including:
- Pressure or pain in the chest or back.
Heartburn or Heart Attack? When to Worry?
If you have chest pain and are not sure if it’s severe heartburn symptoms or a heart attack, call 911 right away.
It’s better to get emergency treatment and find out that you have a minor health problem than to ignore something that could be deadly.
Remember, paramedics will provide the fastest, safest transportation to the hospital. Do not drive yourself or ask someone else to drive you.
To learn more about heart attack causes, symptoms, and treatment options, visit the UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute or call 1-855-UPMC-HVI (876-2484).
Editor's Note: This article was originally published on , and was last reviewed on .
The UPMC Heart and Vascular Institute has long been a leader in cardiovascular care, with a rich history in clinical research and innovation. As one of the first heart transplant centers in the country and as the developer of one of the first heart-assist devices, UPMC has contributed to advancing the field of cardiovascular medicine. We strive to provide the most advanced, cutting-edge care for our patients, treating both common and complex conditions. We also offer services that seek to improve the health of our communities, including heart screenings, free clinics, and heart health education. Find an expert near you.