It’s important to know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest. Learn how the causes, symptoms, and immediate treatments differ.
A heart attack and cardiac arrest, though both significant and dangerous, are two different cardiac events. Heart attacks happen when too little blood flow gets to the heart, but in cardiac arrest, the heart malfunctions and stops beating, at which point a person may suddenly lose consciousness.
What Happens During a Heart Attack?
The medical term for a heart attack is myocardial infarction, or MI. Someone in the United States has a heart attack about every 34 seconds. These attacks occur because the blood supply to part of the heart muscle gets cut off, often as a result of atherosclerosis: the formation of fat-based plaque inside one or more of the arteries that carry oxygen-rich blood to the heart.
Heart attack symptoms may start suddenly or gradually. They include:
- Chest pain This may feel like pressure, pain, or tightness in the center of your chest. It may come and go but usually lasts for several minutes.
- Radiating pain Pain may be felt in your arms, back, or jaw. This type of pain is more common in women.
- Difficulty breathing You may be short of breath with or without pain.
- Other symptoms You may have stomach pain, nausea, dizziness, or cold sweats. These symptoms are also more common in women.
What Happens During Cardiac Arrest?
About 326,200 incidences of cardiac arrest happen outside of a hospital every year in the United States. While a heart attack is a problem related to circulation, cardiac arrest is an electrical problem that causes an irregular heartbeat, or an arrhythmia. An arrhythmia can prevent your heart from pumping enough blood, or it can stop it from beating completely.
A heart attack increases the risk for cardiac arrest, but most heart attacks do not cause cardiac arrest. Other heart conditions that can lead to cardiac arrest include diseases of the heart muscle, heart failure, and a type of arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation.
During cardiac arrest, also called a sudden cardiac event, a person will pass out as their heart loses its ability to get blood to the brain. Usually they won’t be breathing, and will have no pulse.
What to Do for a Heart Attack and for Cardiac Arrest
Heart attack and cardiac arrest are different heart problems, but they are both emergencies in which every second counts. If you think you or someone near you is having a heart attack or is in cardiac arrest, call 911.
Emergency medical services have the best chance of saving a person’s life after heart attack or cardiac arrest because they can start treatment as soon as they reach the scene. Getting to the hospital by ambulance is better than arriving by car because treatment can begin en route. This is especially important for someone in cardiac arrest, as they can die within minutes after the heart stops if CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation) is not started or an AED (automated external defibrillator) is not used to shock the heart.
For cardiac arrest If someone has cardiac arrest and you know how to do hands-only CPR, you can double or even triple that person’s chance of survival. Here are the steps to take if someone has cardiac arrest:
- Yell for help.
- Call 911.
- Check for breathing. If the person is not breathing, start CPR.
- Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is available.
- Continue CPR until help arrives.
For a heart attack Your chances of surviving a heart attack depend on how severe the attack is and how quickly you get treated. The best advice: Don’t wait more than five minutes before calling for emergency help. With fast and proper heart attack treatment, most people recover.
Knowing how to identify a heart attack or cardiac arrest, and knowing what to do should either occur, could save your or someone else’s life. Take a minute to learn how to do hands-only CPR from the American Heart Association. To learn more about using an AED, visit the Red Cross online.