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The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

The Difference Between a Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

Someone clutches their heart and falls to the ground, rendered completely unconscious. Later in the show the doctor will emerge to inform the family member that the individual suffered a heart attack… or was it a cardiac arrest? This is a scene all too common in films and television shows. The problem is that many people are unsure of what the difference is, if there is one at all! Although they may be portrayed as the same thing in Hollywood, the two are actually different! Want to know the difference and outsmart all the media that has it wrong? Here is the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest.


Heart Attack

What is a Heart Attack?

You probably think of someone groaning in pain, saying that their chest is tight, and then falling to the ground when you picture heart attack. This is an image we are used to seeing in the media, but it is not always 100% a true depiction. A heart attack occurs when blood flow is suddenly blocked and it can no longer bring oxygen to the heart. It is this occurrence that then will cause symptoms such as:

  • Chest discomfort
  • Pain or discomfort in other areas (such as the jaw, arms, neck, or back)
  • Sweating
  • Disorientation, dizziness, or light-headedness
  • Shortness of breath
  • Nausea

Many people do not realize that they are having a heart attack and instead think that they are just feeling sick. Each individual will experience a heart attack differently, and it is important to be aware of all the warning signs so you can call for help immediately. If you are ever in doubt, always call 911, because heart attacks can quickly turn into cardiac arrest. The longer you wait, the more serious it can become. If blood is not delivered to that blocked area of the heart, the heart will begin to deteriorate and can cause permanent damage.

Take a look at this video by the American Heart Association which portrays a fictitious situation of a woman having a heart attack.

NOTE: This video is made to be comedic. If you ever are with someone who has the symptoms of a heart attack, stay with them until emergency help can arrive!


How to Help Someone with a Heart Attack

The best thing you can do if you think that yourself or someone else is having a heart attack is to call 911. Even if you are unsure, it is better to call immediately for emergency help so that if it is a heart attack, you have help on the way. Unlike what many will believe, a heart attack is not assisted with CPR right away. A heart attack can happen to a person and they can be fully conscious and aware that it is happening – they will experience the signs and symptoms.

Although it is different for each individual, the best thing to do after calling 911 is to calm the individual (or yourself) down. Have them sit or lie down and take deep breaths to try and slow their breathing rate. It is also found that taking an aspirin can help delay the effects of a heart attack until emergency personnel arrive.

On the other hand, if the person suddenly goes unconscious and stops breathing, it is then that you should perform CPR right away. When a person collapses and is no longer breathing, this is when a heart attack has turned into a cardiac arrest.


Cardiac Arrest

What is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest can happen very quickly and suddenly (this is why it is also called Sudden Cardiac Arrest). A heart attack can lead to cardiac arrest or it can occur on its own. Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart begins to beat in an irregular rhythm, not properly receiving or delivering blood and oxygen to the rest of the body. As a result, the brain does not get enough oxygen and the heart is not pumping blood properly, so the person will fall unconscious and stop breathing.

Because cardiac arrest can happen so suddenly, it is sometimes hard to determine whether a person was showing symptoms or not. Things to look for prior to sudden cardiac arrest are:

  • Fatigue and weakness
  • Fainting
  • Shortness of breath
  • Dizziness
  • Chest pain
  • Vomiting

You will know when a person has gone into cardiac arrest because they will collapse quickly, become unconscious, have no pulse, and will not be breathing. It is in this moment that you need to act quickly, as the longer the person is deprived of oxygen and blood, the closer the person will be to death. It is for this reason that AEDs (automated external defibrillators) should be kept close by. With an AED, a shock can be delivered to reset the heart back into a normal rhythm. 

Take a look at this video and see what a cardiac arrest looks like on a heart monitor:

How to Help Someone in Cardiac Arrest

Unlike a heart attack, the person will not be conscious for a cardiac arrest. Although some heart attacks can turn into a cardiac arrest, the two are very different. If you come across a person who is suffering a cardiac arrest, call 911. Then begin CPR right away. Remember, if you are not fond of giving mouth-to-mouth, giving compression-only CPR is just as effective! Take action and begin giving the individual the compressions that could save their life until help arrives.

Once you have called 911 and have begun compressions, if someone is nearby, instruct them to go and find an AED and bring it back to you right away. An AED is a life-saving device that can assess a person’s heart rhythm and is used to administer shocks. These shocks work to ‘kick’ the heart back into a normal beating rhythm, thus stopping cardiac arrest. The PulsePoint app is building up across Canada and the USA and may have an AED location listed nearby if you’re not sure where one is.

If you are alone and you are not near an AED, then continue to perform CPR until help arrives or until the individual begins to breathe and move once more. Although CPR can still save lives, having an AED nearby will double the chances of survival. That is why having an AED accessible is so important. Keep one in your car and in your home, and push for one at your workplace and anywhere else you go to ensure that you are always prepared for an emergency!

Heart Attack-Cardiac Arrest Infographic

Staying Prepared for Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

As scary as it is to think that someone close to you could experience a heart attack or a cardiac arrest, it is scarier to think that you are unprepared. The best way to prepare for these heart emergencies is to have the skills that could save a life. First Aid training courses prepare you with solutions and skills that can be used in all types of emergencies – CPR, poisons, injuries, cuts, etc. As well, every First Aid course offered at First Edition will teach you CPR AND AED usage. That way you will have the confidence to know what to do and be ready to jump to action!

Another way to stay prepared for heart-related emergencies is to have an AED at the ready. Wherever you go throughout your day, look for AEDs! Be aware of where the AEDs are at your gym, in your office, at your grocery store, at the local community center, etc. If you do not see AEDs, speak to someone at each location and ask them to consider purchasing one to stay prepared (You can get $100 referral fee for doing so if they purchase)! You can also purchase an AED for yourself! Keep it in your home or in your vehicle. That way if someone ever goes into cardiac arrest near you, YOU have an AED easily accessible.


Now that you know the difference between a heart attack and cardiac arrest, you can enter into the world being more prepared! Not to mention, you can now show off your newfound knowledge to your friends when the TV shows get it wrong. Recognize the signs and symptoms of a heart attack and cardiac arrest and be equipped to help when an emergency occurs!