Heart Attack vs. Cardiac Arrest

Although often used interchangeably, a heart attack and cardiac arrest are actually two different health concerns. It is important to understand the difference in these two life-threatening heart conditions to respond properly.

Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked due to a clogged artery. This blockage prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. If not reopened quickly, the section of the heart not receiving blood will begin to die.

Symptoms of a heart attack usually begin slowly and occur for hours, days or even weeks before the actual heart attack occurs. These symptoms can include:


  • Abnormal fatigue
  • Palpitations – sensations of the heart beating too rapidly or skipping a beat
  • Dyspnea – difficult breathing
  • Chest pain – chest discomfort from increased activity

Cardiac Arrest

Cardiac arrest happens when an electrical malfunction in the heart causes an irregular heartbeat, known as arrhythmia. When this occurs, the heart can no longer pump blood to the brain, lungs or other organs. Within seconds, a person suffering from cardiac arrest loses consciousness and has no pulse. Death can occur within minutes if the person is not treated.

Unlike a heart attack, cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and usually without much warning.

The Link Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

Although they are two different conditions, a heart attack and cardiac arrest are linked. While most heart attacks do not lead to cardiac arrest, having a heart attack does increase the risk of cardiac arrest and is a common cause of sudden cardiac arrest.

Seeking Medical Attention for a Heart Attack

If you are experiencing symptoms of a heart attack, minutes matter. Don’t wait more than five minutes to call 9-1-1. The longer a person goes without treatment, the greater the damage.

Seeking Medical Attention for Cardiac Arrest

Receiving treatment within minutes after sudden cardiac arrest can mean life or death. Most cardiac arrest is reversible, but only if treated immediately. If someone you know experiences sudden cardiac arrest, call for emergency services right away. If an automated external defibrillator is available, follow the directions carefully and then begin performing CPR to the beat of the song “Stayin’ Alive” (popularized by the 1977 movie Saturday Night Fever) until EMS arrives. By doing this, you can double or even triple the victim’s chance of survival.

Treatment at UnityPoint Health – Allen Hospital

While you never know when you'll need heart care, Allen Hospital is always ready to provide exceptional cardiac physicians, nurses and support staff, state-of-the-art catheterization facilities and a highly specialized cardiac rehabilitation program.

Learn more about the only accredited Chest Pain Center in Cedar Valley and how Allen Hospital provides comprehensive care to all of their patients.

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