Whether you hear it on the news, when talking with a neighbor or even reading about it online, the terms “heart attack” and “cardiac arrest” are so similar, most people generally assume they’re the same thing and mistakenly use the terms interchangeably. Although both involve the heart and require immediate medical attention, they are very different conditions.
What is a heart attack?
Most likely heard more often than the other, a heart attack (or what doctors may call a myocardial infarction or MI) occurs when an artery to the heart gets blocked.
When there is a blockage to your heart, you lose oxygen and blood, which the heart needs to function properly. As a result, blood cannot flow to your heart and the part of the heart that is normally nourished by that artery will begin to die. The longer the artery remains blocked and is not reopened, the greater the damage will be.
For a heart attack, symptoms will typically include intense discomfort or tightness in the chest or upper body (arms), shortness of breath, cold sweats and nausea or vomiting.
For women, the symptoms differ slightly and may include shortness of breath, pressure or fullness in the center of the chest, nausea or vomiting, and back or jaw pain.
Since minutes matter when a person is having a heart attack, you need to seek immediate care and call 911 if you or someone around you is experiencing any of the symptoms.
What is cardiac arrest?
While heart attacks are seen as a plumbing problem, cardiac arrests are an electrical problem.
Cardiac arrest occurs when there is an electrical misfiring causing an irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia) – meaning the heart will beat too rapidly or chaotically, or even suddenly stop beating altogether. Since the heart can’t function properly, your heart isn’t able to pump blood to your brain, lungs and other organs which will cause you to stop breathing and become unresponsive within seconds.
Unlike heart attacks, there are fewer symptoms for cardiac arrest and they are typically presented much quicker and with less warning.
Symptoms include abnormal breathing (either not breathing or only gasping), a sudden collapse, blue discoloration of the face or unresponsiveness. Because death can occur within minutes if a person does not receive immediate treatment, it’s vital to call 911 immediately if symptoms of cardiac arrest are presented. In addition to calling 911, finding an automated external defibrillator (AED) and using it, or doing hands-only CPR, can double or triple the chance of survival.
Prevention is the Key
For both heart attacks and cardiac arrest, prevention is key.
With the main goal of prevention being to avoid clots and reduce the build-up of plaque in the arteries, there are many precautions and steps you can take to decrease your risk. These steps include being physically active every day for at least half an hour, eating a healthy diet that is low in unhealthy fats and high in fruits and vegetables, maintaining a healthy weight, not using tobacco, reducing stress, and managing your high blood pressure, cholesterol or diabetes.