Is it a panic attack or a heart attack?

The symptoms come on quickly: You feel your chest tighten, your heart rate skyrockets and you start sweating. It’s an alarming scenario, and your mind races to figure out what’s happening. Is it a heart attack? Or is it a panic attack? It can often be difficult to tell the difference (especially if you’ve had neither) and that only adds to the confusion and stress. Both events are serious and it’s important to recognize which one you’re experiencing so you can get proper treatment.

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?
A heart attack is when part of your heart doesn’t get enough blood. This usually happens because an artery that supplies blood to the heart is blocked. Common heart attack symptoms include:

• Chest pain or pressure.

• Pounding or racing heart.

• Feeling lightheaded or faint.

• Sweating, including cold sweats.

• Pain or discomfort in the upper body, such as the jaw, neck, arms, shoulders or back.

• Shortness of breath.

• Nausea or vomiting.

• Feeling of impending doom.

A heart attack can be life-threatening, so don’t wait to see if the symptoms go away. Seek immediate medical care if you have signs of a heart attack.

What are the symptoms of a panic attack?
A panic attack is a sudden attack of overwhelming fear or anxiety. Panic attacks are not life-threatening, but they interfere with your quality of life and mental well-being.

People who have regular or frequent panic attacks may have a panic disorder, a type of anxiety disorder. But an isolated panic attack can happen to anyone, even without a panic disorder diagnosis.

Symptoms of a panic attack include:
• Sudden feelings of strong anxiety and fear.
• Chest pain.
• Trouble breathing.
• Feeling of impending doom.
• Pounding or racing heart.
• Sweating.
• Shaking or trembling.
• Weakness or dizziness.
• Stomach pain or nausea.

The difference between a panic attack and a heart attack
Location of pain
Both panic and heart attacks cause chest discomfort, but there is a difference. With a heart attack, pain radiates to other areas like the arm, jaw or neck. If it’s a panic attack, pain will typically stay in the chest.

Chest pressure
Feeling of squeezing or like an elephant sitting on your chest. Achy or burning sensation, like heartburn.

Panic attacks often cause: Sharp or stabbing pain (not typical with a heart attack). Heart racing or chest discomfort that’s hard to describe.

The triggers
Heart attacks tend to happen after physical strain or exertion – a sign not found in panic attacks. A heart attack might happen after shoveling snow or walking up a long flight of stairs. But you wouldn’t have a panic attack after exercise unless there was an emotional stress trigger with it.

But what if the symptoms hit you at night? Both panic attacks and heart attacks can wake you from sleep. But there’s a key difference: People who have nighttime, or nocturnal, panic attacks usually have daytime panic attacks, too.

So if you wake up with chest pain or other symptoms, and you don’t have a history of panic attacks, that might be a sign of a heart attack.

How long it lasts?
Panic attack symptoms last a few minutes or up to an hour. Then, the symptoms disappear, and you feel better. But a heart attack won’t let up. Pain and symptoms of a heart attack might keep going or come in waves where it gets better and worse. Heart attacks can cause severe chest pain, like a 9 or 10 on the pain scale. Then later, the pain may drop to a 3 or 4 before it gets worse again. The pain might change, but it won’t go away.

Play it safe with chest pain and heart attack symptoms
A heart attack is a medical emergency. A panic attack isn’t. But with the overlap in symptoms, it can be tough to tell them apart. Don’t take chances. If you have chest pain or other heart attack symptoms – or if you’re not sure if it’s a heart attack or panic attack – seek immediate medical care.