A heart attack is a serious condition that needs immediate attention. A panic attack's symptoms could ease in 20-30 minutes.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published on January 12, 2021. It has since been updated.
A panic attack and a heart attack might seem similar because of some of the symptoms. People suffering from either could experience shortness of breath, tingling in the arms or hands, nausea, sweating, shaking, racing heart, and even a sharp pain in the chest. It might get tricky to tell the two apart but there are differences between both.
"A typical heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries, which are arteries that supply blood to the heart muscle, becomes blocked or obstructed. This leads to a decrease in blood supply to the heart muscle," Dr. Tamara B. Horwich, associate clinical professor of medicine, cardiology/cardiovascular disease at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told U.S. News.
However, there are ways to tell the two apart. For instance, knowing if you have the risk factors for a heart attack will help in identifying one from the other. Risk factors for a heart attack include being diabetic, being post-menopausal, having a high-stress job, if you have atrial fibrillation, a heart condition that causes palpitations, or if you have a family history. Other risk factors include smoking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, lack of physical activity, and chronic stress.
Panic attacks can happen to anyone, including children. It can occur spontaneously or a stressful event can trigger it, but it doesn't have any immediate dangers. However, a heart attack can be fatal and requires urgent medical attention. In women, sometimes heart disease symptoms can be mistaken for a panic attack, as per the Anxiety and Depression Association of America.
Dr. Tamer I. Sallam, assistant professor of medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, told U.S. News that pain in the chest or arm is a common sign of a heart attack, but it doesn't show up the same way for all. Especially in women, they "are less likely to experience chest pain and may present with other signs like unusual fatigue or upper body discomfort."
Here are nine signs that show the differences between the two:
A panic attack can feel like a sharp, stabbing pain in the middle of the chest while a heart attack is like a squeezing pain and pressure on the chest, as per Medical News Today. The pain also gets better over time in a panic attack. However, in a heart attack, it can shift to the arm, jaw, or shoulder blades.
A panic attack can occur suddenly or due to extreme stress while a heart attack will take place suddenly or during physical exertion like climbing stairs.
In a heart attack, the pain gets worse over time but in a panic attack, it will resolve in 20-30 minutes. The chest pain might be mild in the beginning and may get severe, in the cast of a heart attack. It is important to see a doctor immediately, in the case of a heart attack.
In the case of a panic attack, we might experience shortness of breath, a racing heart, sweating, shaking, and clammy hands as well as tingling. However, heart attack symptoms are long-lasting and can cause nausea and vomiting. It might also seem like a digestive issue. After all, Cleveland Clinic researchers have found a link between coronary artery disease (CAD) and the overgrowth of bacteria in the small intestine.
Patients with small intestine bacteria overgrowth (SIBO) might be at "high risk for CAD and may need to have other CAD risk factors, such as hypertension, hyperlipidemia or diabetes, more aggressively controlled to decrease their chances of worsening coronary artery disease, leading to a serious event like a heart attack," says Cleveland Clinic gastroenterologist Dr. Bo Shen, who specializes in inflammatory bowel disease.
Heart attacks are more common after the 60s. "The average age of heart attack onset is 65 in men and 72 in women," Horwich says. "However, heart attacks can occur much earlier in life – in one's 30s – for people who have very high cholesterol," she added.