Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: Understanding the Difference

The terms “cardiac arrest” and “heart attack” are often used interchangeably, but they represent two distinct medical emergencies. Understanding these differences is vital so you can identify what’s happening, communicate accurately to medical professionals, and act accordingly in a medical emergency. 

Don’t worry if you’re not sure what the difference is, below we’ll clarify the differences so you’ve got the knowledge to act should you be present when the worst happens. 

What is a heart attack? 

A heart attack occurs when one of the coronary arteries is blocked, restricting blood flow to a part of the heart muscle. This blockage can damage the heart muscle due to lack of oxygen, which can cause parts of the heart to die. Blockages can occur due to blood clots, coronary heart disease, and in rarer cases, severe and sudden spasms or contractions. 

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

Symptoms can vary but typically include: 

  • Chest pain or discomfort – this usually occurs in the left or center of the chest, and will not go away, or goes away and comes back repeatedly. This can feel like pressure, fullness, or pain. 
  • Pain in the jaw, neck, back, shoulders or arms – While we typically think of heart attack pain as affecting the left arm, pain can be more widespread. 
  • Shortness of breath – This often comes with chest pain, but can be the first symptom.  
  • Fatigue, light-headedness, and nausea – feeling faint, sick, or breaking out in a sweat are also all common. 

Women may experience less typical symptoms, such as unexplained tiredness or general discomfort and stiffness. Immediate action is crucial; even mild symptoms should prompt a call to 911. While these symptoms can have other causes, there’s no such thing as overreacting to heart attack symptoms. 

What is cardiac arrest? 

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions, causing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) and the heart to stop beating. This abrupt halt means no blood flow to the brain, lungs, and other organs, leading to a sudden loss of breathing and consciousness. Cardiac arrest has many causes, from those similar to a heart attack, such as coronary heart disease, to sudden accidents, such as those causing a lack of oxygen, a dramatic drop in blood flow, or disrupting the body’s natural electrical signals. 

What are the symptoms of cardiac arrest?

The symptoms are immediate and drastic: 

  • sudden collapse
  • no pulse
  • no breathing
  • loss of consciousness

Survival depends on quick response from those around them, making recognition of these symptoms critical. Whenever possible, using an AED and performing CPR will dramatically improve the likelihood of survival. 

What’s the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest? 

The key difference lies in the cause and symptoms: a heart attack is caused by a blockage in the arteries which cause a lack of blood flow, while cardiac arrest is caused by the electrical impulses in the heart stopping. When someone has a heart attack, they’ll usually stay conscious, and there are degrees of severity. Cardiac arrest is sudden and dramatic, though is often the result of a preceding event. 

Immediate Response and Treatment

Time is of the essence in both cases. For heart attacks, prompt medical intervention can prevent significant heart damage and improve recovery. In cardiac arrests, immediate CPR and defibrillation are life-saving. Miami First Aid’s AEDs and training programs are designed to equip individuals and organizations with the skills and tools needed for these emergencies.

Be Prepared 

Recognizing the differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest is imperative for effective emergency response. Miami First Aid specializes in providing CPR and AED training, and training products, to those inside the medical industry and those in first aid roles elsewhere. Our courses cover emergency response techniques and practical skills essential in saving lives. To learn more about our training programs and products, click here.