Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack—Do You Know the Difference?
Cardiac arrest is the abrupt loss of heart function in a person who may or may not have been diagnosed with heart disease. It can come on suddenly or in the wake of other symptoms. Cardiac arrest is often fatal if appropriate steps aren’t taken immediately.
More than 356,000 cardiac arrests occur outside a hospital in the U.S. each year.
Cardiac arrest is caused when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions. The heart stops beating properly. The heart’s pumping function is “arrested,” or stopped.
In cardiac arrest, death can result quickly if proper steps aren’t taken immediately. Cardiac arrest may be reversed if CPR is performed and a defibrillator shocks the heart and restores a normal heart rhythm within a few minutes.
Cardiac arrest may be caused by irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias. A common arrhythmia associated with cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation. In ventricular fibrillation, the heart’s lower chambers suddenly start beating chaotically and don’t pump blood.
What are the warning signs?
With cardiac arrest, there are no warning signs. Cardiac arrest is triggered by an electrical malfunction in the heart that causes an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia). With its pumping action disrupted, the heart cannot pump blood to the brain, lungs and other organs. Seconds later, a person becomes unresponsive, is not breathing or is only gasping. Death occurs within minutes if the victim does not receive treatment.
What to do?
Cardiac arrest can be reversible in some victims if it’s treated within a few minutes. First, call your local emergency number and start CPR right away. Then, if an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) is available, use it as soon as possible. If two people are available to help, one should begin CPR immediately while the other calls your local emergency number and finds an AED.
The term “heart attack” is often mistakenly used to describe cardiac arrest. While a heart attack may cause cardiac arrest, the two aren't the same.
Heart attacks are caused by a blockage that stops blood flow to the heart. A heart attack refers to death of heart muscle tissue due to the loss of blood supply. It's a “circulation” problem. A heart attack is quite serious and sometimes fatal.
A heart attack most commonly results from atherosclerosis (fatty buildups) in the arteries that carry blood to the heart muscle. Plaque buildup narrows the inside of the arteries, making it harder for blood to flow.
If a plaque in a heart artery ruptures (breaks open), a blood clot forms. The clot further blocks the blood flow. When it completely stops blood flow to part of the heart muscle, a heart attack occurs. Then the section of the heart muscle supplied by that artery begins to die. Damage increases the longer an artery stays blocked. In some cases, it may even die. Once that muscle dies, the result is permanent heart damage.
The amount of damage to the heart muscle depends on the size of the area supplied by the blocked artery and the time between injury and treatment. The blocked artery should be opened as soon as possible to reduce heart damage.
What are the warning signs?
Atherosclerosis develops over time, it often has no symptoms until there’s enough damage to lessen the blood flow to your heart muscle.
You should know the warning signs of heart attack so you can get help right away, either for yourself or someone close to you.
Some heart attacks are sudden and intense. But most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort. Here are some of the signs that can mean a heart attack is happening:
- Uncomfortable pressure, squeezing, fullness or pain in the center of your chest. It lasts more than a few minutes, or goes away and comes back.
- Pain or discomfort in one or both arms, your back, neck, jaw or stomach.
- Shortness of breath with or without chest discomfort.
- Other signs such as breaking out in a cold sweat, nausea or lightheadedness.
What to do?
Even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack, call your local emergency number, 911 or 540-382-4343. Every minute matters! It’s best to call your local emergency number to get to the emergency room right away. Emergency medical services (EMS) staff can begin treatment when they arrive—up to an hour sooner than if someone gets to the hospital by car. EMS staff are also trained to revive someone whose heart has stopped. Patients with chest pain who arrive by ambulance usually receive faster treatment at the hospital, too.
CPR—How to Perform It and Why It's Important
What is CPR, and when should I use it?
Cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) is an emergency procedure that can help save a person’s life if their breathing or heart stops.
When a person’s heart stops beating, they are in cardiac arrest. During cardiac arrest, the heart cannot pump blood to the rest of the body, including the brain and lungs. Death can happen in minutes without treatment.1 CPR uses chest compressions to mimic how the heart pumps. These compressions help keep blood flowing throughout the body.
Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack. A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is blocked. A person having a heart attack is still talking and breathing. This person does not need CPR—but they do need to get to the hospital right away. Heart attack increases the risk for going into cardiac arrest.1
CPR Saves Lives
Currently, about 9 in 10 people who have cardiac arrest outside the hospital die.2 But CPR can help improve those odds. If it is performed in the first few minutes of cardiac arrest, CPR can double or triple a person’s chance of survival.2
Certain people, including people in low-income, Black, and Hispanic neighborhoods, are less likely to receive CPR from bystanders than people in high-income white neighborhoods.3
Women may also be less likely to receive CPR if they experience cardiac arrest in a public place.4
A hospital emergency room entrance.
How can I tell whether someone is in cardiac arrest?
- The person is unresponsive, even if you shake or shout at them.
- The person isn’t breathing or is only gasping.
- If you see someone in cardiac arrest, call 9-1-1 right away and then start CPR. Keep doing CPR until medical professionals arrive.
Cardiac Arrests Often Happen at Home
About 350,000 cardiac arrests happen outside of hospitals each year—and about 7 in 10 of those happen at home.3 Unfortunately, about half of the people who experience cardiac arrests at home don’t get the help they need from bystanders before an ambulance arrives.4
If you see cardiac arrest happen (see sidebar), call 9-1-1 right away and then do CPR until medical professionals arrive. Keep reading to learn how to perform CPR.
You Don't Need Formal Training to Perform CPR
You don’t need a special certification or formal training to perform CPR, but you do need education. If cardiac arrest happens to someone near you, don’t be afraid—just be prepared! Follow these steps if you see someone in cardiac arrest:
- Call 9-1-1 right away. If another bystander is nearby, save time by asking that person to call 9-1-1 and look for an automated external defibrillatorexternal icon (AED) while you begin CPR. AEDs are portable machines that can electrically shock the heart and cause it to start beating again.
- Give CPR. Push down hard and fast in the center of the chest at a rate of 100 to 120 pushes a minute. Let the chest come back up to its normal position after each push. The American Heart Association (AHA) recommends timing your pushes to the beat of the song “Stayin’ Alive.” This method of CPR is called “hands-only” and does not involve breathing into the person’s mouth.
- Continue giving CPR until medical professionals arrive or until a person with formal CPR training can take over.