Is it an Asthma Attack, Heart Attack or Panic Attack?

With similar symptoms, these three conditions can be hard to tell apart. Here’s when to seek medical care.

Asian man in business suit holding chest


Tightness in your chest. The feeling that you can’t breathe. These are just two of the signs that your body might be having an attack of some sorts. How do you figure out which type of attack you’re having?

Heart, panic and asthma attacks all share some similar symptoms and warning signs. Some attacks can even be triggered by other types of attacks.

Let’s have a look at these three types of attacks, how to tell them apart, and when you should seek medical attention.

Heart attacks
Roughly 1.5 million people in the U.S. suffer a heart attack or stroke each year. When you have a heart attack, there’s likely been a blockage (plaque) building up in one of your blood vessels. A bit of this blockage — commonly fat or cholesterol — dislodges from inside the walls of your blood vessels. The plaque then forms a clot that interrupts blood flow to your heart, causing a heart attack.

Here are the signs that you might be having a heart attack:

  • Tightness, squeezing, pressure or pain in the chest
  • Pain in the chest that spreads to back, neck or jaw
  • Indigestion, nausea, heartburn or abdominal pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Sudden fatigue
  • Dizziness

The above symptoms can range in intensity from mild to severe. Not everyone having a heart attack will feel the same severity of symptoms, either. If you think you might be having a heart attack, it's important to call 911 and seek medical attention immediately.

Panic attacks
Panic disorders affect roughly 2% to 3% of the population each year. Many of the feelings and symptoms are the same as a heart attack, which is one of the reasons panic attacks can be scary for those experiencing them.

During a panic attack, the body has an intense fear or discomfort response. The attacks typically reach their peak intensity in about 10 minutes. The symptoms will then begin to subside.

The most prominent indicators that someone might be experiencing a panic attack as opposed to a heart attack are their age (commonly under 40) and a previous history of panic attacks. 

During a panic attack, someone might experience:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Passing out/fainting
  • Tingling

And yes, these symptoms are remarkably similar to those of a heart attack. However, there are also some additional symptoms those having a panic attack might experience.

  • Feeling like you’re choking
  • A sense of doom
  • Derealization (a detachment from reality)
  • Fear of losing control

If you have a history of panic attacks, you can work with your physicians to discuss various coping techniques such as calming exercises and medications to lessen anxiety. 

Asthma attacks
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over 25 million Americans live with asthma in the United States. Of those, over 11 million report having had an asthma attack in the past year.

Asthma attacks happen when the bronchial tubes in the lungs swell. Since these are the tubes that allow air to enter and leave the lungs, someone having an asthma attack feels like they can't breathe. They're commonly triggered by irritants such as allergic reactions and seasonal allergies. Asthma attacks can also be brought on by environmental irritants like smoke and strong perfumes and illnesses like the flu or other conditions that affect the lungs, like bronchitis.

Some signs of an asthma attack include:

  • Shortness of breath
  • Wheezing
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Difficulty/rapid breathing
  • Coughing

Asthma attacks can also be triggered by stress, making those with anxiety challenges especially prone. There’s even a condition called stress-induced asthma.

Stress-induced asthma can be caused by events in your life that add to your daily stress, such as challenges at work, with your finances, or with your family. It’s also been shown through studies that those with asthma were four-and-a-half times more prone to develop anxiety attacks. Those with panic disorders were also six times more likely to develop asthma.

If you think you might have asthma, your doctor will perform a few standard diagnostics to test your lung function. From there, you may be prescribed a fast-acting inhaler or daily/scheduled treatments to help control your symptoms. 

Whether your symptoms seem to more closely resemble those of a heart attack, panic attack or asthma attack, always keep in mind your health and safety are of the utmost importance. Seek medical attention right away so you can work with your physician to create a pathway to better health and a better quality of life. And if your symptoms aren’t improving, don’t be afraid to speak up and self-advocate or ask for a referral to a new physician. 

E. Napoletano is an award-winning journalist and the recipient of the 2019 Illinois Women’s Press Association first-place prize for her feature on the traumatic effects of family separation policies at the border.