Know the Difference: Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

Heart attack and cardiac arrest are two of the most common heart conditions. People often use both events interchangeably, but they are not the same. To understand their differences, it helps to know what happens in both processes. Here are some of the distinct characteristics of each condition, including symptoms and possible causes.

Characteristics Cardiac Arrest Heart Attack
Immediate cause Occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating. This condition can happen after or during recovering from a heart attack. With its pumping action disrupted, blood stops flowing to the brain, lungs and other vital organs. When sudden cardiac arrest occurs, heart attack is a common cause. Occurs when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from reaching a section of the heart. Unlike with sudden cardiac arrest, the heart usually does not stop beating during a heart attack.
Early warning symptoms
  • Occurs suddenly and often without warning
  • Loss of consciousness
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Occur in the hour before cardiac arrest sets in
  • Immediate and intense
  • Starts slowly and persists for hours, days or weeks before heart attack
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Feeling unusually tired for no reason
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Sudden dizziness
Risk factors
  • Arrhythmia, particularly ventricular fibrillation and long QT syndrome
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart failure
  • Inherited disorders
  • Some types of physical stress, such as intense physical activity, very low blood levels of potassium or magnesium, major blood loss and severe lack of oxygen and structural changes in the heart
  • Men after age 45
  • Women after age 55 (or after menopause)
  • Family history of heart disease
  • Preeclampsia
  • Infections, such as COVID-19
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High blood cholesterol
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Diet rich in saturated fat, trans fat, cholesterol and sodium
  • Lack of exercise
  • High blood sugar due to insulin or diabetes
What to do Call 911 first, then use an automated external defibrillator (AED), if one is available. AEDs are programmed to give an electric shock if the equipment detects a dangerous arrhythmia. While waiting, begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and continue until professional emergency medical services arrive. Perform hands-only CPR to the beat of the classic disco song “Stayin’ Alive” to double or even triple a victim’s chance of survival. Call 911 right away, even if you’re not sure it’s a heart attack—every minute matters. The longer a person goes without treatment, the greater the damage.

Heart attacks stem from a circulation problem, while an electrical issue triggers cardiac arrests. Despite their distinct processes, both require immediate medical attention to avoid further damage and even death. Don’t wait and get help quickly. Treatments work best when given right after symptoms occur.

If you are at risk for developing cardiovascular disease, seek medical attention or schedule a screening to confirm a diagnosis. We are here with the expertise and compassionate care to help you stay on top of your heart health. Please do not delay care.

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
American Heart Association
Medline Plus

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