Chest pain is a possible symptom of various health conditions, some of which can be life threatening. For this reason, it is best for anyone experiencing chest pain to seek medical help.

The causes of chest pain range in severity from minor to life threatening.

In some cases, it might not be immediately clear why a person is experiencing chest pain. However, identifying additional signs and symptoms may help with determining the cause.

This article explains how to know whether chest pain is likely to indicate a heart attack, anxiety, or COVID-19. It also discusses the treatment options and outlook for each of these causes.

People may use the term chest pain to describe different types of chest discomfort, such as a squeezing feeling, sharp pain, or burning sensation.

Various conditions may cause chest pain, including the following:

COVID-19

COVID-19 is a viral infectious disease that a recently discovered coronavirus called SARS-CoV-2 causes.

Typically, symptoms of the infection develop within 2–14 days of exposure to the coronavirus.

Although it is not the most common symptom, chest pain sometimes occurs with a SARS-CoV-2 infection.

There are a couple of reasons for this. Firstly, achy muscles can occur with COVID-19. In this instance, the pain is not due to a heart issue. Instead, the chest muscles and muscles that are necessary for breathing become sore, causing the person to feel pain in this area of the body.

Secondly, some people with COVID-19 go on to develop pneumonia. Pneumonia involves inflammation of the lungs, and chest pain is one of the common symptoms.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), the possible symptoms of COVID-19 include:

  • a cough
  • fever
  • chills
  • body aches
  • headaches
  • fatigue
  • new loss of taste and smell
  • congestion
  • nausea
  • diarrhea
  • shortness of breath

One way to tell the difference between COVID-19-related chest pain and chest pain due to other causes is the presence of additional symptoms.

Usually, chest pain is not the only symptom of COVID-19.

Heart attack

A heart attack is one of the most common causes of chest pain.

This medical emergency occurs when there is a lack of blood flow to the heart, which can have various causes, including coronary artery disease.

Additional symptoms of a heart attack may include:

  • shortness of breath
  • nausea
  • dizziness
  • breaking out in a cold sweat

It is sometimes possible to distinguish chest pain that is due to a heart attack because the pain often radiates to the arms, jaw, or back.

The type of pain that a heart attack causes can vary, but it tends to present as a feeling of pressure or a squeezing sensation.

Anxiety

Anxiety may also cause chest pain.

Anxiety can occur due to a sudden event or as a result of an anxiety disorder or a panic attack. Additional symptoms of anxiety may include:

  • sweating in the hands
  • shortness of breath
  • trembling
  • dizziness
  • fast heartbeat

Anxiety-related chest pain differs from chest pain due to other causes in a few ways.

For example, the pain typically peaks in about 10 minutes and then fades. Also, it can develop at rest rather than during or following activity.

Usually, chest pain from anxiety does not radiate to other parts of the body, such as the back or arms.

Chest pain may also develop with long COVID.

Although most people recover from COVID-19, some individuals develop symptoms that may continue for several weeks or months.

The CDC classifies post-COVID symptoms as those that continue for more than 4 weeks after an initial SARS-CoV-2 infection.

In addition to chest pain, long COVID symptoms may include:

  • fatigue
  • difficulty concentrating
  • headaches
  • depression
  • anxiety
  • joint pain
  • a cough

Doctors do not fully understand why some people develop long COVID symptoms. However, researchers are continuing to investigate long COVID and work on developing possible treatments.

The cause of chest pain will determine the treatment options.

Doctors will likely focus on treating the underlying cause of chest pain. Addressing any health issues responsible for chest pain will often result in this symptom decreasing or resolving.

However, regardless of the cause, treatment might also involve pain relievers to ease the discomfort.

COVID-19 treatment

A typical treatment plan for COVID-19 will often involve supportive care. Doctors may recommend:

  • taking over-the-counter medications, such as acetaminophen (Tylenol), to decrease aches and fever
  • drinking plenty of water to prevent dehydration
  • getting plenty of rest

If an individual is ill enough to require hospitalization, additional treatment may include steroids or remdesivir (Veklury), an antiviral medication that the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has approved.

Heart attack treatment

Treating chest pain due to a heart problem may include administering nitroglycerin, which helps relax arteries.

Additional treatment may consist of:

  • Medication: Treatment may include administering a medication that breaks up a blood clot.
  • Angioplasty: An angioplasty involves placing a small balloon through an artery to open the blocked artery. In some cases, a doctor may place a metal stent in the vessel instead.
  • Bypass surgery: During bypass surgery, a surgeon will create new passages to allow blood to flow around the blockage to the heart.

Anxiety treatment

The best treatment for anxiety will depend on the frequency and severity of the person’s symptoms.

Treatment may include a combination of the following:

In some situations, chest pain can indicate a life threatening condition.

It is vital to seek immediate medical attention if severe chest pain comes on suddenly, especially if it radiates to the arms, back, or jaw.

Even if the above symptoms do not occur, it is best to see a doctor for chest pain that comes and goes, regardless of whether it is severe.

The outlook for people with chest pain depends on the cause.

For example, chest pain relating to anxiety usually subsides quickly. In most cases, chest pain from COVID-19 also resolves without lasting issues.

Heart attacks vary in severity, but the sooner emergency treatment starts, the better the outcome.

Chest pain has several possible causes, including COVID-19, a heart attack, and anxiety.

One of the best ways to determine the cause of chest pain is considering any additional symptoms and paying attention to the duration and intensity of the pain.

However, as chest pain can sometimes indicate a serious condition, it is best that anyone experiencing this symptom speak with a doctor.

In many cases, treating the underlying cause of chest pain resolves the discomfort.