Differentiating Between Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack


When the heart is concerned, every second matters! Though many tend to use the terms “cardiac arrest” and “heart attack” interchangeably, these two conditions are actually different processes that have distinct symptoms and effects on the human body. Knowing whether a person is experiencing a heart attack or cardiac arrest can get them the help they need faster and, potentially, save their life.

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest is a condition where the heart “short-circuits” and stops beating.

Cardiac arrest is caused by an irregular heartbeat, called an arrhythmia, which stems from the heart’s misinterpretation of the electrical signals from the brain. This disruption in beating can deprive vital organs of much-needed oxygen. When a person enters cardiac arrest, their organs are starved for oxygen, causing them to fall unconscious. The person may become unresponsive and stop or struggle to breathe. If treatment is not administered, they may die in minutes.

If you see a person who you believe is in cardiac arrest, immediately call 9-1-1 and begin CPR if you are certified. In cases where multiple people are around, have a certified bystander perform CPR while you call 9-1-1. In many public stores or restaurants, a portable automated external defibrillator (AED) may be available. Utilize one to try and restart the patient’s heart.

Heart Attack

Unlike cardiac arrest, the heart continues beating during a heart attack. Heart attacks are caused by a circulation blockage, rather than an electrical short. In arteries, a hardened substance called plaque builds up along the inner walls which slowly blocks blood flow through the artery. When the artery is completely blocked, oxygen-rich blood does not reach the heart, causing the malnourished section of the heart to begin to die.

Because blood flow is slowly restricted in the artery over time, the symptoms of a heart attack can show up hours, days or even weeks before the episode, though sometimes the symptoms do not appear until the person is in the midst of a heart attack. These include intense chest and arm pain, trouble breathing, cold sweat, vomiting and weakness. Although the symptoms do not seem as serious as those of cardiac arrest, immediate medical attention is required to minimize damage to the heart.

If you encounter someone who you think is having a heart attack, call 9-1-1 and get them to the emergency room right away. If the situation isn’t promptly addressed the individual’s heart may stop and they may enter cardiac arrest.

Keeping Your Heart Healthy with Fulton County Medical Center

Knowing the difference between heart attacks and cardiac arrest can prove life-saving in certain situations. Discover more about the causes of these conditions from Fulton County Medical Center. To learn how you can reduce your risk, contact us online or call (717) 485-3155.


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