Heart attack vs. cardiac arrest: Recognizing the warning signs

Heart Health

by Baylor Scott & White Health

Feb 8, 2024

Many of us have heard the terms “heart attack” and “sudden cardiac arrest.” Both are serious medical emergencies and can be life threatening, but there are key differences between them.

In order to know the right ways to help in each situation, it’s important to understand the symptoms and causes of each event.

With this knowledge, you can act quickly and get someone (or yourself) the help you need.

What is a cardiac arrest?

Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood to the rest of the body. Someone experiencing a cardiac arrest will lose consciousness and stop breathing, and you will not be able to find a pulse. This cardiac event will be very sudden and unexpected. In case of cardiac arrest, begin CPR and call 911 immediately.

Cardiac arrest can be due to several reasons, many related to the heart itself. It could be triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart, which causes a sudden, irregular heartbeat or arrhythmia that prevents the heart from pumping blood effectively.

What should you do when someone has a cardiac arrest?

When a person experiences a cardiac arrest, survival depends on immediately receiving CPR and calling 911 to get medical help.

The first step is to check the person’s pulse by feeling for the carotid arteries, the major blood vessels in the neck. If there is no pulse, immediately begin chest compressions. If possible, find an automated external defibrillator (AED) if available and use it as soon as possible. Continue providing CPR until professional emergency medical services arrive.

What is a heart attack?

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart muscle is cut off or blocked, often because of a blood clot caused by coronary artery disease. During a heart attack, the person might experience chest pain or discomfort; radiating pain to their arms, neck, jaw or back; or shortness of breath. They might also feel faint or become sweaty or nauseous.

Women are more likely to experience other symptoms of a heart attack, including unusual or unexplained tiredness, nausea or vomiting.

What should you do when someone has a heart attack?

In the event of a heart attack, it is important to seek medical attention immediately. Call 911 and stay calm until help arrives. If you’re experiencing these symptoms yourself, do not attempt to drive yourself to the emergency room or wait for the symptoms to subside. Stay on the phone with the dispatcher and provide detailed information about your current condition. If you have access to an AED, follow instructions given by paramedics or other trained personnel while they are en route.

Cardiac arrest vs heart attack

Understanding the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack are key to helping someone get the medical assistance they need. In either case, call 911 immediately.

The three signs of cardiac arrest that are not signs of a heart attack include:

  • Sudden loss of consciousness
  • Lack of pulse
  • Not breathing

Three signs of a heart attack that are not present in cardiac arrest include:

  • Radiating pain to the arm, neck or jaw
  • Sweating or nausea
  • Feeling faint

Heart risk factors to watch out for

Prevention is key to keeping your heart healthy. Make sure you see your primary care physician at least once a year to get screened for risk factors, as well as manage symptoms before they become problematic.

Heart risk factors to watch out for:

Everyone should get basic life support training certification to be prepared for a cardiac emergency. To find a CPR class in your neighborhood, visit the American Heart Association website. Learning basic life support training can save a life!

Worried about your heart health? Find a heart specialist near you.

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