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  • Writer's pictureCandi Severson

Understanding the Difference: Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest

While often used interchangeably in conversation, a heart attack and cardiac arrest are not the same. This distinction is crucial not only for medical professionals but also for the general public, as the appropriate response can save lives. Let's delve into the differences between these two heart conditions.

What is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack, or myocardial infarction, occurs when blood flow to a part of the heart is blocked for a long enough time that part of the heart muscle is damaged or dies. It is usually caused by a blockage in one or more of the coronary arteries due to plaque (a mix of fat, cholesterol, and other substances).

Symptoms of a heart attack may include chest pain, shortness of breath, nausea, or other symptoms. The key point is that the heart usually continues to beat during a heart attack.

What is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and often without warning. It is the abrupt loss of heart function, breathing, and consciousness. Typically, it results from an electrical disturbance in your heart that disrupts its pumping action, stopping blood flow to the rest of your body.

Symptoms of cardiac arrest are immediate and drastic and include sudden collapse, no pulse, no breathing, and loss of consciousness.

Key Differences

  • Mechanism: Heart attack is a "circulation" issue (blocked blood flow to the heart), while cardiac arrest is an "electrical" issue (problems with the heart's rhythm).

  • Symptoms: Heart attack symptoms are often gradual and can persist for hours, days, or even weeks before the attack, whereas cardiac arrest symptoms are immediate and drastic.

  • Response: Heart attack victims are often conscious and can describe their symptoms, while those experiencing cardiac arrest lose consciousness and require immediate CPR and defibrillation.


Recognizing the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest can significantly affect the outcomes. Education on these topics, knowing how to perform CPR, and quick response can be the difference between life and death.

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