Heart Attack or Panic Attack?

Health, Home & Family
on October 15, 2009

It hits you all at once-the feeling that you can't breathe, a sense of impending doom, the certainty that you're going to die. Is it a heart attack or panic attack?

Don't waste time trying to decide, says Dr. Diwakar Jain, a cardiologist in Philadelphia, because your reaction should always be the same: "Call 911 or have someone drive you to the emergency room as soon as possible."

Every second matters when you're having a heart attack. Given the similarities between signs of heart attack and panic attack, you're in no position to try to differentiate between the two.

While panic attacks can occur suddenly and without warning, most heart attacks start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Key signs of a heart attack include:

  • Discomfort in the center of the chest that lasts more than a few minutes or that goes away and returns. It might feel like uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain.
  • Discomfort in other areas of the upper body, such as one or both arms, the back, neck, jaw or stomach.
  • Shortness of breath, occurring with or without chest discomfort.
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.

Women, in particular, are more likely to experience shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain when they're having a heart attack.

A panic attack typically involves intense feelings of terror or anxiety, shortness of breath, irregular heartbeat, chest pain and sweatiness. Other symptoms can include feeling weak or dizzy, tingling sensations and hot flashes.

The bottom line, Jain says, is that if you're having any chest pain-even if you think it might be caused by heartburn-get to the emergency room as soon as possible.