A heart attack and cardiac arrest are both life threatening medical emergencies. Recognizing the symptoms of each and knowing what actions to take can save a life.

If a doctor told you your loved one had just experienced a heart attack rather than a cardiac arrest, would you be relieved or feel more worried? Would you know the difference between those two terms?

Medical definitions can be confusing to everyone, but in this case, there are key differences between these two cardiac events.

A heart attack is caused by problems with the body’s circulation system that block blood flow to the heart. Most heart attacks are because of coronary artery disease. Your age, lifestyle habits, such as diet and exercise, and other medical conditions can increase your risk. In the United States, heart attacks are common.

A cardiac arrest is a breakdown of the heart’s electrical system. It’s typically caused by arrhythmias that interfere with the rhythm and electrical system of the heart. A cardiac arrest occurs when the rhythm of the heart stops.

This article compares the symptoms, causes, and treatments for these two conditions and the outlooks for people with them.

Illustration highlighting the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrestShare on Pinterest
The difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest. Illustration by Maya Chastain

A heart attack, which is often referred to as a myocardial infarction, happens when blood that normally flows to the heart is blocked or cut off. Without enough oxygen-rich blood flowing to the heart, it can cause damage to one of the most important organs in the body, and the heart muscle can begin to die.

A cardiac arrest, on the other hand, is known as sudden cardiac death. The word “arrest” means to stop or bring to a halt. In the case of cardiac arrest, the heart stops beating, which is an extremely serious health issue. Cardiac arrest can cause near-immediate death or disability.

A heart attack and cardiac arrest are both life threatening medical emergencies. It’s helpful to know the symptoms of each.

Symptoms of heart attack

Heart attacks often begin with sudden chest pain, but they can also start slowly with mild pain that comes and goes over several hours. Symptoms of a heart attack can vary, and if you’ve had one heart attack, your symptoms may be different if you experience another one.

Symptoms can also vary between males and females, but for both sexes, the most common symptom of a heart attack is chest pain. However, women are somewhat more likely than men to experience other symptoms, particularly shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, and back or jaw pain.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrests can often happen to people who didn’t know they had a heart problem. A person experiencing cardiac arrest may collapse and lose consciousness. They may stop breathing or experience difficulty breathing.

Don’t wait to get help

If you suspect someone is having a cardiac arrest, call 911 or local emergency services and immediately begin CPR.

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Symptom comparison table

The table below lists common symptoms for heart attacks and cardiac arrests.

Symptoms of heart attackSymptoms of cardiac arrest
Symptoms can increase over time (but not always).
Chest pain is the most common symptom.
Symptoms can increase over time (but not always).
chest pain, heaviness, or discomfort in the center or left side of the chestdizziness
pain or discomfort in one or both arms, back, shoulders, neck, jaw, or above the belly buttonshortness of breath
shortness of breath when resting or doing a little bit of physical activity (this is more common in older adults)fatigue or weakness
heavy sweating for no reasonnausea and vomiting
feeling unusually tired for no reason, sometimes for days (more common in women)heart palpitations or chest pain
nausea and vomitingno pulse
lightheadedness or sudden dizzinessnot breathing or difficulty breathing
rapid or irregular heart rateloss of consciousness

The causes and risk factors for heart attacks and cardiac arrests are quite different. Many people who experience a heart attack knew they were at risk. Cardiac arrests, on the other hand, often happen to people who didn’t know they had a heart problem and were unaware of any risks.

Causes of heart attacks

Heart attacks are usually caused by coronary heart disease, which starves your heart of oxygen. Most of the time, people know they’re at risk of a heart attack because they’re being treated for heart disease.

Risk factors for a heart attack can include:

Causes of cardiac arrests

Certain heart conditions and health factors can increase your risk of cardiac arrest, including coronary heart disease. Other factors that aren’t always known could also put you at risk such as:

A doctor can determine the difference between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest by conducting specific tests. This is just one reason why it’s important to get immediate medical care if you or someone you know suspect they’re experiencing either a heart attack or a cardiac arrest.

Diagnosing a heart attack

Doctors diagnose a heart attack by performing a physical exam and ordering an electrocardiogram to check your heart’s electrical activity.

A doctor may order an echocardiogram or a cardiac catheterization to determine the strength and vitality of your heart. It’s also common to have a sample of your blood taken to check for signs of heart muscle damage.

Diagnosing a cardiac arrest

A cardiac arrest means your heart has stopped. Without immediate resuscitation, it’s fatal.

If a doctor is successful at restarting your heart and getting the blood flowing again, they’ll then perform diagnostic tests to determine the cause of your cardiac arrest. These tests may include an echocardiogram, blood tests, and a chest X-ray to look for other signs of disease in your heart.

Treatment options for heart attacks and cardiac arrests depend on factors such as:

  • other medical conditions you may have and prescription medications you may be taking
  • the seriousness of the heart attack or cardiac arrest
  • your health and ability to withstand surgeries or other procedures

Treating a heart attack

If you’ve had a heart attack, a doctor may recommend any number of procedures depending on the severity of the emergency to help relieve pain, prevent another heart attack, or both.

Some of these procedures or treatments can include:

It’s also common for doctors to prescribe medications, such as pain relievers, beta-blockers, and nitroglycerin, to help with recovery or to help prevent another heart attack.

Treating cardiac arrest

Treatment for cardiac arrest nearly always starts with CPR or a defibrillator to get the heart started again. Once someone has survived a cardiac arrest, a doctor will likely start one or more treatments to help lower the risk of having it happen again. These often include:

  • medications
  • surgery
  • living a healthier, more active lifestyle

Although heart attacks are life threatening, most people survive them and go on to live active, full lives. If you get help quickly, your treatment can limit damage to your heart muscle.

Adopting healthy lifestyle habits increases your likelihood of a good recovery. It’s important to work with a healthcare team to build a recovery plan that best suits you. Getting consistent, moderate exercise, eating a healthy diet, losing weight if you have overweight, and stopping smoking if you smoke are some of the things you can do to help improve your outlook.

The outlook for a person who’s had a cardiac arrest is dependent on how long it takes to resuscitate the heart after cardiac arrest. The timeframe for recovery can also vary. If you experienced brain damage from losing consciousness or severe bruising or broken bones from CPR, it will likely take longer to heal.

Recovery from coronary bypass surgery or other invasive, life saving procedures can also require more time to return to health.

Remarkable improvements can result from the treatments and medications prescribed after experiencing a cardiac arrest, but the outlook for an individual is also dependent upon the severity of the event and their individual health.

It can be easy to forget the differences between a heart attack and a cardiac arrest, but the most important thing to remember is that both are serious, life threatening conditions.

Get medical help immediately if you suspect you or someone you know is experiencing either condition.

A doctor and healthcare team can quickly assess your symptoms and begin treatment. Your recovery and outlook will depend on how quickly you can get to a doctor or healthcare professional.