Is It a Heart Attack or a Panic Attack?

Every year in the US, more than 800,000 men and women have a heart attack and, for more than 600,000, it’s their first one. At the same time, nearly 5% of adults in the US experience a panic attack at some point in their lives — many of whom struggle with ongoing attacks. Though these two events are different in terms of medical severity, they each share strikingly similar symptoms.

At Advanced Cardiovascular Specialists, our team’s goal is to promote great heart health, and we believe that preventive care and caution are key when it comes to this important area of your wellness. 

In the following, we take a look at some key factors that you should consider when trying to decide whether you’re experiencing a heart attack or panic attack.

Similar symptoms

As we mentioned, a heart attack and a panic attack often produce incredibly similar symptoms, which include:

Both of these events can also lead to a loss of consciousness.

The problem gets further complicated in that a heart attack can also coincide with a panic attack as your body responds to the stress.

As you can see, it can be extremely difficult to tell the difference between a panic attack and a heart attack, especially when you’re in the throes of one or the other (or both), but there are some clues to consider.

Your history

Your history holds one of the biggest keys about from where your attack may stem. For example, if you’ve been struggling with a generalized panic disorder, anxiety, or you’ve had previous panic attacks, it’s important to take this into account.

As well, your medical history also provides some important clues — do you have a factor that places you more at risk of a heart attack, such as:

If you have any of these risk factors and experience the symptoms we describe above, you should take the attack seriously and seek help.

Age as a factor

Age can also play a key role, but it certainly isn’t one that’s set in stone. If you’re under the age of 40 and you’re experiencing the above symptoms for the first time, the odds are that it’s a panic attack. But we emphasize that we’re talking about “odds,” which means the numbers suggest that you aren’t old enough for a heart attack. 

The fact is that heart attacks can, and do, occur in people younger than the age of 40, uncommon or not.

Erring on the side of caution

Even with years of experience and extensive training, a cardiovascular expert can have trouble distinguishing between a heart attack and a panic attack based on symptoms alone. In most cases, we perform a complete evaluation, including an electrocardiogram (EKG), to gain a better understanding of whether your heart is malfunctioning.

The bottom line is that you should err on the side of caution when it comes to your heart health. If you’re at all unsure, please go to your nearest emergency room to have them take a look or you can contact one of our three offices in Mountain View, Watsonville, or Monterey, California, to speak to one of our staff for guidance.

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