Teenage heart attacks are extremely rare. When they do occur, symptoms in teenagers may include chest pain, shortness of breath, and nausea. The symptoms may come on gradually or suddenly.

Less than 10% of heart attacks occur in people under the age of 40 years, and only a small fraction occurs in teenagers. However, heart attack rates in young individuals are rising due to a combination of lifestyle risk factors and congenital heart abnormalities.

People with congenital heart disease can work with a cardiologist to understand and reduce their risk. It is also important to manage lifestyle risk factors, such as eating a high fat diet, consuming too much sugar, or having a sedentary lifestyle. Alcohol use and drugs, such as cocaine, can also damage the heart.

Teenagers experiencing chest pain may panic. But a heart attack is among the least likely potential causes of chest pain. Still, it is important to investigate all symptoms by seeking prompt care.

This article will explain what heart attack symptoms can occur in teenagers and the causes of sudden cardiac arrest. It will also detail other reasons for chest pains in teenagers and guidelines for optimal heart health.

warning signs of a heart attackShare on Pinterest
Medical Illustration by Bailey Mariner

The most common heart attack symptom is chest pain. The pain is usually in the center or left side of the chest and usually lasts several minutes or goes away and then comes back. Some people describe it as squeezing pain or pressure.

Some other symptoms a person may experience include:

  • jaw, neck, or back pain, especially with chest pain
  • shortness of breath
  • shoulder pain
  • weakness or dizziness
  • unexplained fatigue, especially with other symptoms
  • nausea or vomiting, especially with other symptoms

Learn more about heart attacks.

Sudden cardiac arrest means that the heart suddenly stops or its rhythm becomes so irregular that it cannot adequately pump blood throughout the body.

Sudden cardiac arrest is rare but more common in young people with underlying heart disease or congenital heart abnormalities. For this reason, The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) now recommends screening every 3 years for risk factors for sudden cardiac arrest.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest may be similar to those of a heart attack and include:

  • suddenly collapsing
  • shortness of breath
  • chest pain
  • not having a pulse or having a very weak pulse

Cardiac arrest is inevitably fatal without immediate medical intervention.

Learn more about sudden cardiac arrest.

A heart attack occurs when a portion of the heart cannot get enough blood. This can happen when a clot blocks a blood vessel and is more common in people with risk factors that narrow the blood vessels.

A 2018 study of United States adults aged 18 to 39 years found that 8.8% of young adults had at least one heart attack risk factor.

The biggest risk factors for heart attack include:

Certain lifestyle factors increase the risk of having one or more risk factors. They include:

  • a sedentary lifestyle
  • having obesity
  • smoking
  • a high fat diet
  • high cholesterol or high triglycerides

Even with many risk factors, heart attacks are rare in young people. That said, young individuals with congenital heart disease or abnormalities may have a higher risk.

Chest pain is common, and in young people, a heart attack is not the most likely cause. Some of the most common causes include:

  • muscle injuries
  • heartburn
  • gastrointestinal problems
  • pneumonia
  • infections such as herpes
  • anxiety
  • panic attacks

More serious causes, such as infections of the heart, may also cause chest pain.

Panic attack

A panic attack can feel very similar to a heart attack. A person may have an overwhelming sensation that they are dying, in addition to experiencing chest pain and trouble breathing. For this reason, it can be difficult to distinguish a panic attack from a heart attack. Someone with any doubts can seek emergency care.

Panic attack symptoms are more likely to be from panic and less likely to be from a heart attack if the following occur:

  • A person is feeling very anxious or has recently had an increase in anxiety.
  • An individual does not have heart disease risk factors.
  • Symptoms go away on their own.
  • Symptoms get better with relaxation techniques such as meditation or breathing slowly.
  • Symptoms are similar to panic attacks someone has previously had.

Learn more about panic attacks.

Some strategies to lower heart disease and heart attack risk factors include:

  • speaking with a doctor and asking about heart disease risk factors
  • monitoring and treating any underlying health conditions, especially diabetes and other conditions that can affect heart health
  • eating a healthy, balanced diet
  • reducing consumption of sodium and sugar and avoiding trans fats
  • becoming more physically active
  • maintaining or attaining a healthy weight

Heart attacks are very rare in people under 40 years and rarer still in teenagers. That said, they can happen, especially in those with underlying heart disease. Regular check-ups can help a person assess their cardiovascular health and develop a plan for managing their risk factors.

Teenagers who experience chest pain or other heart attack symptoms need to tell a parent or other adult and seek prompt emergency care.