When Every Second Counts: Heart Attack vs. Panic Attack

Woman with hand on her head.
We’ve all seen heart attacks portrayed on-screen: An actor clutches their chest and cries out in pain, maybe even dropping to the floor. But not all heart attacks look like that. And while chest pain is a classic symptom, it can also be a sign of something else entirely — a panic attack.

Deciphering Symptoms

Heart attacks and panic attacks might appear similar, but recognizing their differences can be a literal lifesaver. So how can you tell which is which? Refer to the list below for a comparison that may help.

A blockage that reduces or completely cuts off blood flow to the heart. 
Symptoms may start suddenly but can also develop slowly and get worse.
Chest Pain
Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, pain, or a feeling of fullness in the chest; pain in the jaw, arm, neck, or back; pain that worsens over time.
Shortness of breath.
Duration of Symptoms
Symptoms do not get better, or they go away for a short time and then come back.
Other Symptoms
Cold sweats; lightheadedness; nausea and vomiting.

A sudden, intense wave of fear that can occur if the body's survival instincts become overactive.
Symptoms start suddenly and are immediately overwhelming.
Chest Pain
Chest pain (the exact sensations vary person-to-person); pounding heart rate.
Difficulty breathing. 
Duration of Symptoms
Symptoms peak in about 10 minutes and then begin to fade.
Other Symptoms
A feeling of intense fear or being out of control; shakiness; sweating or chills.

Next Steps
Always trust your instincts. If something feels “off,” don’t risk it. A heart attack is a medical emergency, and you don’t want to gamble with your life. If you’re having symptoms that seem like a heart attack, call 911 right away.

It’s important to address panic attacks, too. Though not as dangerous, they do speak to your emotional and mental well-being, which are areas of health that deserve attention and care. Discuss your experience with your healthcare provider and ask about resources that can help.

How Old Is Your Heart?
Calculate your heart age and get a quick glance at your overall heart health with our Heart Health Profiler. It compares your risk for heart disease against someone without any risk factors. 

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