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Emergency Care Dynamics
Serving The San Diego Area
Serving The San Diego Area

Is It Asthma or a Heart Attack?

Asthma symptoms occur when the airways that carry air in and out of the lungs narrow and become inflamed. Narrow airways restrict air flow into the lungs, making it difficult to breathe.
Similarly, when the heart doesn't get enough oxygen, angina—an underlying symptom of heart disease—can occur. Atherosclerosis, which is a leading cause of heart attacks, is characterized by the buildup of plaque in the coronary arteries. The condition restricts blood flow through an artery causing chest discomfort and shortness of breath.
But since these two conditions can have similar symptoms, how do you know if you are suffering an asthma attack or having a heart attack? Find the answer below.
Common Symptoms
It isn't unusual for multiple health conditions to produce the same symptoms. Asthma and heart disease are key examples of two different diseases that share common symptoms.
Both asthma and cardiovascular disease can cause:
  • Chest tightness or pain
  • Shortness of breath—especially if it occurs with exertion
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Wheezing and coughing
If you experience any of these symptoms, you need to see a doctor who will perform the tests necessary to make an accurate diagnosis.
Chest Pain or Pressure
Since some people suffer from both asthma and heart disease, it can be hard to tell which condition is the cause of chest discomfort or pain. But if taking a nitroglycerin tablet helps alleviate chest pain, it's probably an angina attack since this type of medication doesn't relieve asthma symptoms.
While a heart attack generally involves intense pressure, chest pain associated with asthma is usually sharp. Asthma pain also gets worse when you cough or breathe.
Another sign is that pain related to an asthma attack may be on only one side whereas pain associated with a heart attack normally occurs in the middle of the chest. Pain that spreads to your arms or jaw often is a sign of a heart attack as well.
Difficulty Breathing
You may be having an asthma attack if your breathing is faster than normal; you get short of breath; and the color of your face, hands, and feet is pale, gray, bluish, or mottled. Even your lips, tongue, gums, and nail beds may look bluish.
It can take you longer to breathe out and you may make high-pitched, abnormal breath sounds when you breathe in. Fatigue while talking or eating and the need to stop to catch your breath are additional signs of asthma.
If asthma isn't the cause of your breathing difficulties, you may experience this symptom if your heart can't pump enough oxygenated blood to your body. But no matter what the cause, contact your doctor or seek urgent medical care if:
  • Use of an inhaler offers no relief
  • Difficulty breathing develops suddenly
  • Breathing difficulty does not go away after you rest
  • Chest pain or pressure develops along with difficulty breathing
You should never ignore these symptoms. Even if you know that you have asthma, severe breathing problems can be a warning sign of co-existing heart disease.
Wheezing, Coughing, and Shortness of Breath
If you are suffering an asthma attack, wheezing and coughing will improve with the use of a rescue inhaler. Short-acting prescription beta-agonists work by relaxing the smooth muscles in the lung walls. This relaxation opens the airways and lets in more oxygen so that you can breather better.
Sometimes, people mistake breathing difficulty for asthma when angina, heart attack, or heart failure is the cause. Signs of heart attack other than chest discomfort or pain may include abdominal pain, nausea, vomiting, back pain, or lightheadedness.
Heart failure can cause fluid to build up in the lungs and airways, leading to shortness of breath, coughing, and wheezing—typical asthma symptoms. Other symptoms of heart disease include swelling of the legs, ankles, and feet—symptoms that usually don't occur with asthma.
If you aren't certain whether your symptoms are triggered by an acute asthma attack or are the warning signs of a heart problem, the team of medical professionals at Urgent Care & More, Emergency Care Dynamics can evaluate your symptoms to determine the cause.