Heartburn or Heart Attack? When to Worry

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

What is heartburn?

Despite its name, heartburn has nothing to do with your heart. It is caused when acid in your stomach backs up into your esophagus. Often it comes from eating spicy foods, overeating, being physically active after eating or eating too late in the evening. It isn’t life threatening – at least not immediately.

Heart attacks, on the other hand, are very serious. Chest discomfort, shortness of breath, fatigue, even nausea and sweats are all signs of a heart attack. It is important to know your family history and pay attention to eating right, getting exercise, sleeping well, and keeping stress low.

What’s the difference between heartburn and a heart attack?

It has been reported that 85% of hospital ER admissions for chest pain are not a heart attack. While it is difficult to completely differentiate 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?

Heart attacks, in general, produce a continuous discomfort or pressure sensation in the center of your chest. The pain associated with heart attacks may be experienced as a burning, aching, squeezing, or heavy sensation that can spread to other areas of the body like the arm, shoulder, upper back or jaw.  During a heart attack, there are symptoms present that are not generally felt during episodes of indigestion. Symptoms of a heart attack may include shortness of breath, sweating, light headedness, dizziness, and nausea.

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

Symptoms may worsen when taking a deep breath or coughing, but the pain is often relieved by taking antacid medications. Symptoms are usually: 

  • Feeling pain, burning, and discomfort in your upper abdomen
  • Feeling full too soon while eating
  • Feeling bloated and gassy

The good news is by making a few small dietary changes you can that can reduce run-ins with heartburn. 

5 ways to prevent indigestion

  1. Eat several small, low-fat meals instead of 3 large meals
  2. Limit spicy, greasy, or high-fiber foods
  3. Limit the amount of coffee, alcohol, and soda you drink
  4. Quit smoking
  5. Get enough rest and add a little exercise

While heart attacks may happen at rest, heart attack-related chest pain occurs more commonly during or immediately after exertion. Indigestion generally hits shortly after a meal or in the middle of the night.

What to do if you have chest pain

If you are worried that your chest pain may be from a heart attack, call 9-1-1 or go to the Emergency Department. If you are suffering from heartburn and want to speak with a doctor fast, skip the waiting room and use Connect Care. Our providers are available 24/7/365 – even holidays.