Heart Attack or Angina? Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life

Heart Attack or Angina? Knowing the Difference Can Save Your Life

Often confused for the other, angina and heart attacks can and do produce very similar symptoms.

What Exactly Is Angina?

A common symptom of heart disease, angina happens when cardiovascular blockages advance enough to reduce oxygen flow to the heart. This usually results in jaw or chest pain, which can seem like heart attack symptoms. After a while, heart tissue may begin to die off due to low oxygen supply. When this occurs, a heart attack becomes likely. There are two types of angina, stable and unstable.*Characteristics of stable angina (most common)

  • Develops when your heart works harder, such as when you exercise or climb stairs
  • Can usually be predicted and the pain is usually similar to previous types of chest pain you've had
  • Lasts a short time, perhaps five minutes or less
  • Disappears sooner if you rest or use your angina medication

*Characteristics of unstable angina (a medical emergency)

  • Occurs even at rest
  • Is a change in your usual pattern of angina
  • Is unexpected
  • Is usually more severe and lasts longer than stable angina, maybe as long as 30 minutes
  • May not disappear with rest or use of angina medication
  • Might signal a heart attack

Identifying the Differences

Although angina sensations may seem like an actual heart attack, there are usually subtle differences. A side-by-side comparison can shed light on these variances.Common Angina Symptoms

  • Chest pain that disappears after five or fewer minutes
  • Discomfort that feels like severe indigestion
  • Pain spreading out from the chest to the arm, back or upper body
  • Chest pain that only occurs during exercise or activities when the heart must work harder
  • Relief after resting or ingesting heart medicines such as nitroglycerin

The severity, duration and type of angina can vary. It's important to recognize if you have new or changing chest discomfort. New or different symptoms may signal a more dangerous form of angina (unstable angina) or a heart attack.

Common Heart Attack Symptoms

  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Sudden onset of sweaty or clammy skin
  • Shortness of breath or lightheadedness
  • Pressure or pain in the back, stomach, neck, jawline or either arm
  • Pain, pressure or squeezing in the chest, most often on the left side


Sometimes angina and heart attacks can manifest in different ways. Women in particular often experience confusing and uncommon sensations during an event, because they tend to develop heart disease in the small arteries that branch outward from the coronary arteries. These symptoms may include fatigue, confusion, vomiting, jaw pain and vague chest discomfort. When women experience any type of vague symptom that might be related to a cardiac event, it's critical that they seek medical care as soon as possible.

When to Seek Help

Whenever you have sensations that might point toward a heart attack or angina, you should immediately seek emergency care. If you do have angina, your doctor can recommend a specialist who can design a treatment strategy to improve your overall health and manage your risk.

*Source: Mayoclinic.org

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