Heart attack and cardiac arrest are two terms that are often used interchangeably. But—while these are both cardiac events that should be taken seriously—their differences are stark, and knowing the signs of each could help save a life.
“Collectively, more than 1 million people suffer a heart attack or cardiac arrest every year. That’s 1 million individuals who require timely and accurate treatment to prevent long-term damage or death,” says Matthew Hillis, MD, Lankenau Heart Institute cardiologist at Bryn Mawr Hospital, part of Main Line Health. “It benefits everyone to recognize the signs of a heart attack and cardiac arrest, and how to respond to these events.”
If you’re still unsure about the differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, read on for an explanation.
What is a heart attack?
A heart attack occurs when a blocked artery prevents blood from reaching your heart. Although the heart continues to beat during a heart attack, these blockages require your heart to work harder. Immediate treatment is necessary to relieve the heart and prevent long-term damage.
While they occur nearly twice as often as cardiac arrest, there’s still confusion about what a heart attack looks like or feels like. The simple answer? It varies.
“A heart attack can be sudden and intense, but its symptoms can also appear more gradually. You might experience chest pain or pressure in the moments before a heart attack, or you could experience a slow build of symptoms like jaw pain or unusual fatigue in the weeks or months before a heart attack. There is no blueprint for how a heart attack happens,” says Dr. Hillis.
What is cardiac arrest?
While a heart attack is the result of a circulation problem within the heart, cardiac arrest is the result of an electrical malfunction that causes the heart to experience arrhythmia, an irregular heartbeat. An arrhythmia can make it difficult for the heart to pump blood to organs in the body, including the heart and lungs, and can quickly cause an individual to lose consciousness.
Unlike a heart attack, cardiac arrest almost always occurs quickly and—more often than not—silently.
“In the majority of cardiac arrest cases, individuals have no symptoms at all. If they do, they can occur very shortly before cardiac arrest occurs, and often present as dizziness, chest pain, a rapid or fluttering heartbeat and difficulty breathing,” says Dr. Hillis.
Don’t confuse these symptoms with the idea that you have more time to find treatment. Whether or not you experience symptoms, cardiac arrest occurs quickly and can have fatal consequences. In instances of cardiac arrest, the chances of survival decrease significantly within minutes.
If someone near you is experiencing cardiac arrest, call for emergency medical attention as quickly as possible. As you wait for help to arrive, administer CPR and—if possible—use an automated external defibrillator (AED) on the individual to normalize the heart’s rhythm.
Preventing heart attack and cardiac arrest
While a heart attack and cardiac arrest are two different events, there are similarities in the way that you can help lower your risk.
“Knowing your family’s health history and diligently managing your heart health are the two best ways to decrease your risk for either of these cardiac events,” says Dr. Hillis.
That means not only knowing your family’s risk for heart attack and cardiac arrest, but also risk factors like high blood pressure or cholesterol or diabetes. Additionally, adhere to a heart-healthy lifestyle by following a healthy diet, exercising regularly and limiting your alcohol consumption. Tobacco and drug use can also increase your risk.
If someone you know is having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, call for emergency medical attention immediately.