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    Heart and vascular

    Heart attack or heartburn? When to worry

    Learn to spot the difference and save a life

    Learn to spot the difference and save a life

    It’s American Heart Month, so there’s no better time for a distinguishing guide of heart attacks VS heartburn. It's natural to feel concerned when experiencing chest discomfort, but understanding the difference between conditions can provide peace of mind.

    Some of our expert caregivers provided crucial insight around the matter, and their practical advice will help navigate your heart health journey.

    "Doctors see an increase in the number of heart attacks during the winter season,” said William Daines, MD at Intermountain Medical Center. “Similarly, heartburn rates go up this time of year, in part due to overindulgence of comfort foods, late eating, and increased alcohol intake."

    By learning to recognize the signs and symptoms of each condition, you can take the appropriate steps to address your concerns and, if needed, seek medical care.

    "Although heartburn and heart attack symptoms can share similarities, it is important to recognize the difference,” said Kirstin Hesterberg, DO, an Intermountain Health cardiologist in Denver, Colorado.

    Heartburn signs and symptoms

    Heartburn often feels like a burning sensation in your chest that can move up to your throat. And despite its name, it has nothing to do with your heart. It’s caused by stomach acid backing up into the esophagus.

    "Indigestion generally causes temporary chest discomfort or burning anywhere from the upper abdomen to the throat,” said Dr. Daines. “Heartburn usually hits after eating spicy, fatty, or greasy foods, but as with too much caffeine, feeling stressed, or eating too much."

    Common signs and symptoms of heartburn include:

    • Burning sensation in the chest
    • Sour taste in the mouth
    • Difficulty swallowing
    • Regurgitation of food or liquid

    These symptoms usually occur after eating or when lying down. While heartburn can be uncomfortable, it typically doesn’t cause severe pain or lasting damage to the heart.

    Heart attack signs and symptoms

    A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked, usually by a blood clot. Unlike heartburn, a heart attack can be life-threatening and requires immediate medical attention.

    Common signs and symptoms of a heart attack include:

    • Chest pain or discomfort, which may feel like pressure, squeezing, or fullness
    • Pain or discomfort in other areas of the upper body, including the arms, back, neck, jaw, or stomach
    • Shortness of breath
    • Nausea, lightheadedness, or cold sweats

    Soubi Azzouz, MD, Interventional and Structural Cardiologist at St. Mary’s Medical Center, said the most common symptom association he sees is with exertional activities.

    “During silent heart attacks, the most common ‘nonviolent’ symptom that patients experience is exertional dizziness or shortness of breath while doing an activity,” said Dr. Azzouz. “And they sit down, and it goes away, and don’t link it with their heart.”

    Silent heart attacks are cardiac arrests with mild symptoms, or no symptoms at all, that you may not recognize as a medical emergency.

    It's important to note that not everyone experiences the same symptoms, and women may have different signs than men. If you suspect you or someone else is having a heart attack, don’t wait – call emergency services.

    “These symptoms can indicate a serious cardiovascular event and require prompt attention," said Dr. Hesterberg. "If someone experiences heartburn with other symptoms, especially the ones mentioned above, seeking care is advised."

    Heart attack prevention

    We wrote about heart attack risk factors this month. While some risk factors for heart attacks, like age and family history, can’t be changed, there are steps you can take to reduce your risk:

    • Maintain a healthy diet low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium. If you need heart-smart diet advice, check out the latest in heart healthy diets.
    • Stay physically active with regular exercise. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends 150 minutes of moderately intense aerobic activity.
    • Manage stress through relaxation techniques or hobbies. Research has shown that anger, depression, and anxiety are all strong risk factors for heart disease.
    • Avoid smoking and limit alcohol consumption. The AHA recommends no more than two drinks per day for men, and one drink per day for women.
    • Keep chronic conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, and high cholesterol under control with medication and lifestyle changes. Regular visits with your primary care provider should supplement this.

    By adopting heart-healthy habits, you can significantly lower your risk of experiencing a heart attack.

    Understanding the differences between heartburn and a heart attack is crucial for your well-being. If you’re unsure about your symptoms, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and seek help. Take care of your heart – it’s the only one you have! 

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    Heart attack or heartburn? When to worry