Chest pain and shortness of breath can be signs of a heart attack, but there might be something else going on, says Jeffrey H. Johnson, MD, cardiologist at the University of Tennessee Medical Center in Knoxville. Gastrointestinal issues, vaping-lung or other issues can mimic heart attack symptoms.
Things Mistaken for a Heart Attack
Vaping-induced lung injury. Ongoing investigations by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have linked an outbreak of lung injuries to e-cigarettes or vaping. However, reported symptoms — including chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting and stomach pain — all mimic symptoms of a heart attack.
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Gastroesophageal reflux. Sometimes referred to as heartburn, acid reflux, indigestion or acid regurgitation, gastroesophageal reflux is what happens when the contents of your stomach flow back up and enter the esophagus. Stomach acid touching the lining of the esophagus causes the burning sensation, along with pain in the chest and nausea that may be mistaken for heart attack symptoms, says the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK).
It's fairly common for someone to have acid reflux every once in a while, and symptoms can be managed with over-the-counter medications and dietary changes. However, if symptoms occur more than two times a week, it could be more serious and you might be diagnosed with gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), a condition affecting 20 percent of the U.S. population, according to NIDDK.
Read more: The 10 Worst Foods for Acid Reflux
Generalized anxiety disorder (GAD). Beyond occasional worry, people with general anxiety disorder have an invasive level of anxiety that interferes with daily functioning. GAD has many of the same symptoms associated with a heart attack, including fatigue, abdominal pain, tightening in the chest, sweating, light-headedness, shortness of breath and unexplained aches, according to the National Institute of Mental Health (NIMH). Symptoms may be worse during times of stress or illness, it adds.
Panic disorder. This anxiety disorder is characterized by panic attacks that come on suddenly, according to the NIMH. Possible symptoms that mimic signs of a heart attack are heart palpitations, racing heartbeat, sweating profusely, shortness of breath, dizziness, chest pain and nausea.
Spinal cord infarction. This uncommon condition, caused by thickening or closing of major arteries supplying the spinal cord, produces symptoms within minutes or hours, says the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke. The signs of this type of infarction, or stroke — such as chest pain, back pain and weakness in the legs — resemble those of a heart attack.
Angina. This heart condition happens when the heart doesn't get enough oxygen-rich blood. The main difference between a heart attack and angina is that a heart attack is the result of blood being completely blocked and the heart not getting any oxygen-rich blood, whereas with angina, the arteries are not completely blocked so some blood makes it through.
The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute reports that symptoms of angina can range from an upset stomach to the same type of chest pains and pains in your arms, jaw, neck or back associated with a heart attack. In fact, angina could be a sign that you're at an increased risk for heart attack. All chest pains should be checked out by a medical professional.
While it's possible that the symptoms you're experiencing or witnessing in someone else are not signs of a heart attack, it's better to seek medical attention than to wait and see what happens next.
"New or worsening chest pain, new or worsening shortness of breath and either of these along with nausea and inappropriate sweating warrant a trip to the emergency room for further evaluation," says Dr. Johnson. If it is a heart attack, receiving immediate medical attention can be the difference between life and death. If it is something other than a heart attack, medical treatment may provide relief.
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases: “Definition and Facts for GER and GERD”
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products”
- National Institute of Mental Health: “Generalized Anxiety Disorder: When Worry Gets Out of Control”
- National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke: “Spinal Cord Infarction Information Page”
- National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “Angina”
- National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases:"Symptoms and Causes of GER and GERD"
Is this an emergency? If you are experiencing serious medical symptoms, please see the National Library of Medicine’s list of signs you need emergency medical attention or call 911.