Cardiac Arrest or Heart Attack? Know the Difference

Most people use the terms cardiac arrest and heart attack universally. Most people do not even know there is a difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack. Although a heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest, these two potentially fatal heart conditions occur for very different reasons.

Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack (Electrical vs Circulation)

The main difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack is cardiac arrest is an “electrical” malfunction and heart attack is a “circulation” issue.

1. Heart Attack (Circulation)

A heart attack happens when oxygen-rich blood is prevented from one or more sections of the heart, because of a blocked artery. When an artery is blocked for a period of time, the section of the heart which is nourished by the artery dies gradually. Damage continues to occur the longer if a person waits to get treatment. Symptoms can happen over a period of hours or even weeks. Symptoms can also occur immediately and intensely. The heart will usually continue beating through a heart attack.

2. Cardiac Arrest (Electrical)

Cardiac arrest happens when the heart beats irregularly (arrhythmia) because of an electrical malfunction. Unlike heart attack, cardiac arrest is sudden and unexpected. While the heart is beating irregularly, it is unable to supply needed blood to organs, including the brain and lungs. Within seconds the victim loses consciousness and pulse. Without treatment, the victim can die in several minutes.

Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack: The Link

Cardiac arrest and heart attack have very different symptoms, but these ailments of the heart do share a link.

A person’s risk for cardiac arrest increases when that person is having, or has had, a heart attack. Heart attacks do not usually immediately lead to cardiac arrest, but when a person becomes the victim of cardiac arrest, heart attack is generally the cause.

Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack: Symptoms

If a person is having a heart attack or cardiac arrest, there are some similar symptoms to spot on the scene:

  • Difficulty breathing
  • Unreasonable sweating
  • Abdomen discomfort – with or without nausea or vomiting
  • Headache, toothache, or jaw pain
  • Feeling a squeezing sensation in the chest – with or without pain
  • Heartburn
  • Pain in the upper back
  • Pain in either arm

However, there're differences between heart attack and cardiac arrest with regard to symptoms:

Symptoms of Heart Attack

Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest

  • General malaise – a general vague feeling of simply not feeling well. This could be overly fatigued or feeling ill. A feeling of knowing something is not normal within your body.
  • Sometimes, there are no signs or symptoms. Keep regular visits with your doctor to make sure everything in your body is in good working order.
  • Collapsing suddenly without warning
  • Loss of pulse
  • No breathing
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Other possible precursor signs: Blackouts, chest pain, dizziness, fainting, fatigue, shortness of breath, heart palpitations, vomiting

Cardiac Arrest vs Heart Attack: Risks Factors and Causes

Though many risk factors and causes are the same, there’s still a difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack with regard to risk factors and causes.

1. Similar Risk Factors and Causes

  • Age: In both cardiac arrest and heart attack, the ages of higher risk in men is 45 and older, and in women ages 55 and older.
  • Tobacco use (particularly smoking): Smoking leads to many health complications, including heart disease, cardiac arrest and heart attack. Secondhand smoke exposure also increases the chances of suffering these potentially deadly heart conditions.
  • High blood pressure: Artery damage can be caused by high blood pressure. A person who has high blood pressure and also smokes, is obese, has high cholesterol, or has diabetes is at an even greater risk of cardiac arrest and heart attack.
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Family history:  A person is at increased risk of cardiac arrest or heart attack if someone in their immediate family (parents, grandparents, siblings, parent’s siblings, etc.) suffered a heart attack or had coronary artery disease early in life (by age 55 for men and by age 65 for women).
  • Low activity lifestyle:  A sedentary, inactive lifestyle can lead to obesity and high cholesterol levels, both of which can lead to cardiac arrest and heart attack.
  • Illegal drug use: Cocaine, “Meth”, crack, angel dust, and other stimulant drugs can cause a person’s arteries to spasm, which can lead to heart attack or cardiac arrest.

2. Risk Factors and Causes of Heart Attack

  • Build-up of unwanted fatty deposits (atherosclerosis) which can be caused by numerous factors.
  • Stress
  • History of preeclampsia: Preeclampsia is the cause of high blood pressure in pregnancy and can increase risk of heart disease throughout the remainder of the patient’s life.
  • History of autoimmune illnesses: Rheumatoid arthritis and lupus as well as others can cause heart attack risk to be increased.

3. Risk Factors and Causes of Cardiac Arrest

  • Overindulging in alcoholic beverages (more than two drinks per day).
  • Gender: Men are up to three times more likely to experience cardiac arrest than women.
  • Nutritional imbalance: Low nutrients, especially key minerals, cause an increase in risk of cardiac arrest.
  • Previous heart attack
  • Previous cardiac arrest


Heart attack is generally a precursor to cardiac arrest; therefore, any risk factor or potential cause of heart attack can also be a future risk factor or potential cause of cardiac arrest. And the best way to prevent heart attack or cardiac arrest is to avoid any of the risk factors and causes, and keep a healthy lifestyle by watching out what you eat and doing aerobic exercise every day.

What to Do in Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest Situations

If you, or someone you know are experiencing the symptoms mentioned above, please contact emergency immediately. Even if it is not a heart issue, some symptoms of heart attack could be other serious health issues, including bleeding ulcers or even a collapsed lung. Get medical help immediately. It could save a life!

Remember, the first thing to do is to contact 911. If the person is in cardiac arrest, begin CPR immediately after contacting 911. If more than one person is available, CPR should be administered while another person calls for emergency medical services. Getting emergency medical services is vital for cardiac arrest victims and is best for heart attack victims. In a case of heart attack, EMS is trained to treat, and revive, if necessary. Calling 911 for an ambulance to escort the patient to the hospital, instead of attempting to drive the patient to the hospital, is better for early and skilled treatment, and it is likely that a patient with chest pain will receive treatment faster if they get to the hospital by ambulance.

INTERESTING FACT: To double or possibly triple the chance of a victim’s survival, perform CPR to the beat of the song “Stayin’ Alivin” by the BeeGees!

To help you with a heart attack or cardiac arrest emergency, check out Two Steps to Stay Alive with Hands-Only CPR by America Heart Association.