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Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack – Understanding the Differences

POSTED BY: Christine Jallad

People often use these terms interchangeably, but cardiac arrest is much different, and with different symptoms than that of a heart attack.

Cardiac Arrest explained

Cardiac arrest is the leading cause of death – but can be reversible in some cases if swift action is taken. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart malfunctions and stops beating unexpectedly. Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical failure in the heart and causes an irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia. A person suffering from cardiac arrest may become unresponsive, may not be able to breath or is gasping for air.

Cardiac Arrest Symptoms:

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

Cardiac arrest is a serious issue and should be addressed immediately. If the heart is not pumping properly, it cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other vital organs. If stumble upon someone having cardiac arrest, seek help immediately by calling 911. You should also start CPR right away and use an AED (Automated External Defibrillator) if it’s available.

Heart Attack explained

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked. Unlike a cardiac arrest, heart attacks are a circulation of blood flow problem. A blocked artery prevents blood from flowing freely to portions of the heart and if blood is not able to reach that area after a period of time the artery begins to die.

Heart Attack Symptoms:

  • Tightness, squeezing, pain or pressure in the chest/upper body (this feeling may go away and then come back)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating/cold sweats
  • Fatigue
  • Trouble Sleeping
  • Lightheadedness or dizziness
  • Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, neck, jaw or stomach
  • Nausea/vomiting

More times than not, a person’s symptoms will be subtle and often can go undetected because they creep up slowly, sometimes lasting for days or even weeks before the attack. Another thing to keep in mind is that unlike with cardiac arrest, the heart typically does not stop beating during a heart attack. This can lead to confusion and makes you question whether or not you are actually having a heart attack. The symptoms listed above are often brushed off as the flu, stress, or simply feeling “under the weather”, but your live (or your loved one) is in jeopardy if you don’t take these symptoms seriously.

It’s important to know that the longer you go with heart attack symptoms without medical treatment the more severe damage you are doing to your arteries.

If you suspect you or a loved one is having a heart attack, call 911. It’s best to call for emergency help than to risk underestimating your symptoms, putting yourself or a loved one a greater risk.

Being able to recognize the warning signs and symptoms of each life-threatening condition is crucial. 

To take a free online health risk assessment, visit