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Chest pain! When you should see a doctor or call for help

Chest pain can be life-threatening, but it’s not always. Know when to call for emergency assistance.

20 August 2019
3 minute read

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Chest pain can signal a life-threatening heart attack. But there are other types of chest pain from causes like panic attack and indigestion that are not dangerous. Here are the main causes of chest pain, and when to call for urgent medical assistance.

When to call for helpChest pain can be symptomatic of a number of conditions, ranging from mild to severe. Because a heart attack is a possible concern, it’s best to err on the side of caution, especially in these scenarios:

  • If the chest pain is persistent and spreading to your arms, back, jaw, neck or stomach, along with symptoms such as sweating, nausea, dizziness, light-headedness, shortness of breath and palpitations. Treat it as an emergency, as these symptoms could indicate a heart attack. You should always call an ambulance or go to the emergency room if you experience these symptoms.
  • If there is a known heart or lung condition and the chest pain is worse than usual or doesn’t respond to the usual treatment. Medical help should be sought immediately.
  • If mild chest pain is not relieved by home remedies (for example, for suspected heartburn) and especially if the pain persists for several days or worsens, a doctor should be consulted. 

It's not an emergencyThere are other less serious conditions that are sometimes mistaken for a heart attack.

Panic attack
A sudden episode of intense fear or anxiety can trigger a range of symptoms including chest pain or tightness, rapid heart rate, sweating, shortness of breath and light-headedness. When panic attacks occur, you might think you're having a heart attack or even dying. Panic attacks, while intensely uncomfortable, are not dangerous. However, because panic attack symptoms can resemble symptoms of serious health problems, including heart problems, it's important to get evaluated by your primary care provider if you aren't sure what's causing your symptoms.

Heartburn/indigestion
Acid from the stomach bubbles up into the esophagus, causing a painful burning just behind the breastbone.

Symptoms might include discomfort and pain in the upper abdomen and chest, a feeling of fullness and bloating, belching, nausea, excessive gas.

Asthma
A chronic lung condition causes your airways to become inflamed and narrow and makes breathing difficult. The coughing and wheezing experienced during an asthma attack can lead to chest pain or discomfort. Asthma first aid at home (inhaler, oxygen mask) can be used if the breathing is limited but you’re still able to move around.

When it’s an emergency:A severe asthma attack can be life threatening. If you are gasping for breath, unable to speak one of two words per breath, feeling confused or exhausted, call an ambulance. Asthma first aid at home (inhaler, oxygen mask) can be used if the breathing is limited but you’re still able to move around.

Angina
Chest pain is caused by reduced blood flow to your heart muscle. There’s a feeling of squeezing, pressure, heaviness, tightness or pain in your chest. The pain typically stops after a few minutes of resting.

Note: Angina is not life-threatening, but it is a warning sign that you might be headed for a heart attack or stroke.  If you haven’t been diagnosed with angina, and you have an attack of chest pain that stops within a few minutes of resting, make an urgent doctor appointment to have it checked out.

Take actionRemember, it’s better to be safe than sorry. Chest pain is a symptom that should always be taken seriously. If you are not sure what’s wrong, and you are worried, it’s advisable to go to your doctor or to the emergency room. In an emergency, call 10177 for an ambulance.

chest pain

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