Have you ever woken up in the middle of the night with chest pressure so severe that you weren't sure if it was asthma or a heart attack? Sometimes the symptoms of both conditions can present in such a similar way that it's difficult to tell the difference.

The Facts about Asthma or Heart Disease

Chest pain and discomfort can be caused by a variety of reasons, and asthma and cardiac events certainly rate high on the list. This means that it's important to take any symptoms you experience quite seriously, since when left untreated, both conditions can a lead to dangerous consequences.

Symptoms of Asthma or Heart Disease

Please review the following list of possible ways that either asthma or heart disease can present:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath, especially when you exert yourself
  • Chest tightness
  • Wheezing

The Asthma or Heart Attack Differences

While these can be common signs of both conditions, several telltale clues can sometimes help you to tell the difference. For instance, when the problem is asthma, the symptoms will usually improve upon using your fast-acting relief inhaler. However, this approach won't offer any relief from a heart attack or other heart-related issue.

On the other hand, when your symptoms are caused by a heart condition, there can be several factors to look for. First, you may also experience swelling of the legs, feet and ankles. This rarely occurs with asthma and should be a big warning sign that you may be having cardiac difficulties. Further, when the pain spreads out from your chest to both of your arms and/or your jaw, this can also be a signal that you could be having a heart attack. Finally, if you suffer from angina (a type of heart condition), if you feel chest pressure and pain, you can try taking a nitroglycerin pill. If the medication makes you feel better, the problem is probably heart related, since this medication won't resolve asthma symptoms.

Other Clues

It may also help you to know researchers looking at emergency room data of people who presented with chest distress discovered that those who experience the following symptoms are probably NOT having a heart attack:

  • Sharp pain (a heart attack usually causes intense pressure)
  • Pain on one side of your chest (a heart attack is often in the middle)
  • Breathing in or coughing makes the pain worse

Cardiac Asthma

It's also worth noting that there's a condition called cardiac asthma that mimics asthma symptoms, including the telltale wheezing, but instead of involving the lungs and airways, it's caused by a problem with the heart or valves.

Other Conditions to Consider

Of course in addition to asthma, cardiac asthma and other heart problems, chest pains can also be caused by a variety of other conditions, such as gastroesophageal reflux disease (GERD), chest infections and even muscle injuries.

A Word of Warning

When you experience real chest discomfort and aren't sure if it's something minor or could be very serious, it's important not to try to diagnose yourself. If you think you could be having a heart attack, you should always call 911 right away and let your doctor determine the cause of your symptoms and how best to treat them. By responding quickly in the case of a severe asthma attack or a significant cardiac event, you may just find that this action saves your life in the end.


American Academy of Allergy, Asthma and Immunology

American Heart Association ;