Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest—What’s the Difference?

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You may have heard the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” used interchangeably—but according to Dr. Samantha Crites, Mon Health Cardiologist, they’re two very different medical events.

“While a heart attack increases the risk for cardiac arrest, their processes and symptoms differ,” adds Dr. Crites. “Overall, the survival rate for a heart attack is much higher than that for cardiac arrest, though it is possible to survive either with the right type of emergency assistance.”

What is a heart attack?

During a heart attack, interrupted blood flow most often due to plaque buildup can damage or destroy parts of the heart. It can be fatal, but chances of survival increase dramatically for those who seek medical help as soon as they recognize symptoms.

A heart attack can be thought of as a “plumbing” or circulation problem within the heart, says Dr. Crites.

“Heart attacks usually occur due to a blocked artery,” says Dr. Crites. “That blockage prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a part of the heart, causing more and more damage to heart muscles the longer a person goes untreated.”

Heart attacks not only differ from cardiac arrest in how they affect the heart, Dr. Crites adds, but also in the symptoms they cause.

“While cardiac arrest occurs suddenly with no warning, it’s possible for heart attack symptoms to begin hours or days before experiencing a heart attack,” says Dr. Crites.

Symptoms of a heart attack

If you or a loved one experience any of the following heart attack symptoms seek medical help immediately:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Pain in arms, neck, jaw or back (may feel like pressure, tightness or squeezing sensation)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweat
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea

What is cardiac arrest?

During cardiac arrest, the heart stops functioning entirely. Sudden cardiac arrest occurs without warning and is a result of an electrical malfunction within the heart.

According to Dr. Crites, most episodes of cardiac arrest are due to an arrhythmia—an abnormal heart rhythm. And while most heart attacks aren’t followed by sudden cardiac arrest, it can increase a person’s risk of experiencing it.

“Cardiac arrest can occur following a heart attack because the heart has already been weakened or damaged from the lack of oxygen-rich blood,” says Dr. Crites.

Unlike heart attack symptoms, which vary and may appear gradually, cardiac arrest occurs most often without prior symptoms.

Signs of cardiac arrest

A person experiencing cardiac arrest may display the following symptoms, according to Dr. Crites:

  • Sudden loss of consciousness/responsiveness
  • Not breathing
  • No pulse

Call 9-1-1 if you notice symptoms of a heart attack or cardiac arrest.

If you notice any of these symptoms in yourself or someone else, call 9-1-1 immediately. For more information on what to do when someone is experiencing a heart attack or cardiac arrest, visit CDC resources on cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and heart attack signs.

To learn more about our award-winning cardiac care, visit the Mon Health Heart and Vascular Center web page.

Schedule an appointment with Dr. Crites.

See also:

6 Early Warning Signs of a Heart Attack You Should Never Ignore

5 Heart Disease Myths and Misconceptions

Can the flu increase my risk of heart attack?