Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack. Knowing the difference can save a life

April 24, 2017

 Many people equate a heart attack and cardiac arrest but, in fact, the two are quite different.  How can you as a bystander tell the difference?  Here are a few characteristics that will help you differentiate between the two:


  • People experiencing the onset of a heart attack are generally conscious 

  • During a heart attack, the heart is usually beating normally and victims have a pulse

  • A person experiencing cardiac arrest is always unresponsive or unconscious

  • Cardiac arrest victims are not breathing and have no pulse


A Heart Attack can often lead to Cardiac Arrest.  Cardiac Arrest can not lead to a Heart Attack  


In either case, calling 9-1-1 upon recognizing the victim is in distress is crucial and, for the victim in cardiac arrest, immediately beginning CPR and using an AED will give the victim the greatest chance of survival.


Characteristics of Cardiac Arrest


Cardiac Arrest is defined as a sudden stop in effective blood flow due to the failure of the heart to contract effectively.  It can occur to anyone, at any time, of any age and with no warning.  There are many potential causes of cardiac arrest such as heart attack, diseases of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), birth (congenital) heart defects or drug overdose; however, the most common cause of cardiac arrest is an abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmia) called ventricular fibrillation.

Symptoms include but are not limited to:

  • Sudden collapse

  • Unresponsiveness

  • No breathing

  • No pulse


Characteristics of a Heart Attack


A heart attack is defined as a blockage of blood flow (oxygen) to the heart, caused by plaque build up in the arteries.  This interruption in blood flow can cause damage or even tissue death in the affected portions of the heart.  


Symptoms include:

  • Dizziness or light-headedness

  • Pain, pressure or tightness in chest, arm, neck, jaw or back

  • Fatigue

  • Cold sweats


Treatment for Cardiac Arrest


Literally every second counts when it comes to saving a victim of cardiac arrest.  After recognizing that the victim is in distress, calling 9-1-1, the rapid implementation of CPR and utilization of an AED are crucial.  Victims of cardiac arrest generally die within minutes without high quality CPR and rapid defibrillation (use of an AED).


Treatment for a Heart Attack


Calling 9-1-1 is the first step in helping the victim of a heart attack.  Since the victim is most likely conscious and their heart is still beating, CPR is not warranted.

If the victim is not allergic to aspirin have them chew 2 baby aspirin or ½ of an adult aspirin. 

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