Heart attack vs cardiac arrest: What’s the difference?

Hello everyone!

Many people think that cardiac arrest is just a fancy name for a heart attack. But in fact, a cardiac arrest and a heart attack are two very different heart problems, each with distinct symptoms and different appropriate responses required. 


A simple way to distinguish the two is to think of a heart attack as a ‘plumbing’ issue and a cardiac arrest as an ‘electrical’ issue. 

  • Heart attacks are caused by blood flow blockages to the heart that need to be cleared up. 
  • Cardiac arrests are caused by an electrical malfunction of the heart, which causes it to stop beating. 

Both are very serious; however, a cardiac arrest is typically much more deadly than a heart attack. This post delves more into the differences, who is at risk, and how to treat each one.



Close-up of a Man in Blue Polo Shirt with Hands on Chest
Image credit

What is a heart attack?


Heart attacks are caused by a blocked artery, which cuts off blood to the heart. The artery may be blocked due to damage from high blood pressure or a buildup of substances in the blood, such as fat or tar from cigarettes. 


Because the artery is no longer providing the heart with blood, that part of the heart slowly starts to die off. The longer a heart attack goes on, the more damage to the heart is caused.


There are several telltale symptoms to look out for. These include:

  • Intense discomfort, pain, or pressure in the chest
  • Pain or discomfort in the arm, shoulder, neck, back, or jaw (depending on where the artery is located)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Cold sweats
  • Dizziness/lightheadedness
  • Nausea/vomiting


Women are more likely to experience certain symptoms like shortness of breath, nausea and jaw pain. Heart attacks can vary in severity - some people don’t know they’re having a heart attack because the build-up is so gradual, while others experience immediate intense pain which can quickly turn into a cardiac arrest.



Who is at risk of a heart attack?


As already mentioned, a blockage is usually caused by one of two things: a buildup of unwanted substances or damage to the artery that causes it to collapse in on itself.


High blood pressure from stress or foods high in salt or sugar is more likely to cause arterial damage while smoking or a diet high in saturated fat or sugar is more likely to cause clogging.


Overall, the biggest risk factors are:

  • Smoking
  • Drug use
  • A diet high in sugar, salt, or saturated fat
  • Obesity
  • Lack of exercise
  • Chronic stress
  • Diabetes (due to high blood sugar levels)
  • Heavy drinking (due to an increase in blood pressure)
  • Other medical conditions, like preeclampsia, can lead to high blood pressure.


Many people are diagnosed with a heart condition before they experience a heart attack for the first time. Chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue could all be signs that you have a heart condition and are at greater risk of a heart attack. There are diagnostic tests that can be taken to confirm this.



How do you treat a heart attack?


If you or someone else is having a heart attack, you should call an ambulance immediately to get medical attention. In some cases, it may be quicker to drive to a hospital; however, the person having the heart attack should ideally not drive unless they have no other option.


Research shows that taking aspirin during a heart attack or before a heart attack can help ease it by thinning the blood and helping to loosen up any blockage. However, taking aspirin alone won’t treat a heart attack, and getting medical attention is still important.


If you are with someone who is having a heart attack and is waiting for an ambulance, encourage them to sit down and take slow breaths. It is important to keep them calm to keep their heart rate down, as this will reduce the damage to the heart and potentially prevent it from evolving into a cardiac arrest.

If a heart attack does lead to a cardiac arrest, you will need to know how to respond to this, which is explained in the next section.



What is a cardiac arrest?


A cardiac arrest occurs when an electrical malfunction within the body causes the heart to stop beating. Because the heart has stopped beating, it cannot pump blood around the body to all the vital organs, including the brain and lungs.


Unlike a heart attack in which a person can remain conscious, a cardiac arrest typically causes unconsciousness in a matter of seconds. Because a person’s heart is not beating, they are technically dead while having a cardiac arrest, however, chances of resuscitation are higher the earlier a person gets help. There is also a lower chance of brain damage and other organ damage the earlier a person is resuscitated.


Signs someone is experiencing a cardiac arrest include:

  • Sudden collapse
  • Loss of consciousness
  • No pulse
  • No breathing


A heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest if not treated, and so many people will experience symptoms of a heart attack first before collapsing and experiencing a cardiac arrest. That said, a cardiac arrest is not always linked to a heart attack, and so there may not always be warning signs.



Who is at risk of a cardiac arrest?


People who already have a heart condition are more at risk of experiencing a cardiac arrest. A previous heart attack can sometimes weaken the heart and make people more susceptible, while conditions like an irregular heartbeat can also put people at risk. 


All in all, the biggest risk factors include:

  • Old age
  • Heart disease
  • A family history of heart disease
  • Previous heart attacks


Certain hazards can also cause people with no previous heart problems to experience cardiac arrest. This includes:

  • Electric shock
  • Consuming something poisonous
  • Drug/alcohol overdose
  • A severe allergic reaction


How do you treat a cardiac arrest?


If someone is having a cardiac arrest, you should call an ambulance immediately and start performing CPR. This involves using hand compressions on the heart and providing assisted breathing. Performing CPR correctly can help to artificially keep the heart pumping, which can help blood flow around the body. This can increase the chance of successful resuscitation when paramedics arrive and reduce damage to organs. 


CPR alone cannot usually bring someone back - an electric shock is required to do this, which is why it’s important to call paramedics who will be able to use a defibrillator. Of course, if you are qualified to use a defibrillator and have access to one, you can do this yourself.


There are Basic Life Support (BLS) courses that you can take to learn how to give CPR and use a defibrillator. BLS renewal courses may be necessary to refresh these skills. There are also courses where you can solely learn CPR, as well as many resources online. 


Such a life skill is worth learning whether you know someone with heart disease or not, as you never know when you may have to respond to a cardiac arrest. In fact, it is estimated that 1 in 5 people will witness a cardiac arrest in their lifetime.





Understanding the differences between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest can help you respond to each one correctly. To briefly summarise:


  • If someone is having a heart attack, call an ambulance or drive them to the hospital if you can. Keep them calm, make them sit down, and encourage them to take aspirin while you wait for medical assistance.
  • If someone is having a cardiac arrest, call an ambulance. Proceed to carry out CPR until the paramedics take over, or use a defibrillator if you are qualified to do so. 


I hope this information helps you understand the differences between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. Remember, it is crucial to act quickly and seek medical help in both situations to increase the chances of survival. 


Talk soon,



I'm a vegan with a passion for sustainability and clean, cruelty-free products. I mainly write lifestyle, wellness and self-care articles. Since I'm a true crime enthusiast, sometimes I also write about true crime and post videos on my two YouTube channels.

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