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Cardiac Arrest vs. a Heart Attack

A cardiac arrest and a heart attack are both life-threatening conditions that impact how well your heart works. In the United States in 2019, the number of cardiac deaths was 370,000.1 Understanding the risk factors for these two conditions can help you evaluate your risk level and take steps to prevent these serious conditions from occurring.

A cardiac arrest is when the electrical impulse through the heart is blocked or irregular and causes the heart to malfunction. A heart attack occurs when blood vessels in the heart become blocked, and heart muscle is starved of oxygen and nutrients.

What is Cardiac Arrest? 

The heart has two upper chambers, the atria, and two lower chambers, the ventricles. The left side of the heart pumps oxygenated blood to the body, and the right side pumps deoxygenated blood to the lungs.

The four chambers must contract in an orderly manner to move blood from one chamber to the next. The sinoatrial (SA) node is a small section of specialized heart cells in the right atria. These cells start an electrical impulse that travels through the atria, pauses at the atrioventricular (AV) node to allow the atria to contract, and then passes through the ventricles.

Any disruption in this orderly transmission of the electrical impulse can cause an arrhythmia or abnormal heart rhythm. The most serious arrhythmias are ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia. In these cases, the ventricles are rapidly depolarizing and contracting and are not regulated by the SA node.

With ventricular fibrillation and ventricular tachycardia, the ventricles are beating too fast to allow blood to collect in their chambers and be pushed into the body tissues and lungs. The brain and other vital organs do not get the nutrients and oxygen they need to survive.

A cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. About nine out of every ten people who have a cardiac arrest outside of a hospital will die, often within minutes of when their symptoms start.

What is a Heart Attack?

In addition to sending blood to the rest of the body, the heart pumps oxygenated blood to the heart. Cholesterol and fat lining blood vessels, called plaque, can dislodge, break open, or break off and form a clot in a blood vessel. If blood vessels become clogged and do not supply the heart muscle with adequate oxygen and nutrients, heart muscle tissue will begin to die. This blockage leading to damaged heart muscle is what causes heart attacks.

Similarities Between Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack

Both a cardiac arrest and a heart attack can be fatal because they affect how well the heart can pump blood into the body tissues and the lungs. Heart attacks increase the risk of cardiac arrest. When heart muscle becomes damaged due to lack of blood flow, it disrupts the heart’s rhythm.

An older couple with a man holding his heart.

Risk Factors for Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack

Sudden cardiac arrest usually occurs in people with underlying structural heart problems, such as congestive heart failure or a heart attack.

Because heart attacks are a potential cause of cardiac arrest, the risk factors for both conditions are similar.

  • High cholesterol
  • High low-density lipoprotein (LDL)
  • Low high-density lipoprotein (HDL)
  • High blood pressure
  • Cigarette smoking
  • Physical inactivity
  • Obesity
  • Diabetes mellitus
  • Excess alcohol intake

Some risk factors for heart disease, such as family history, increasing age, and male sex, cannot be changed or modified. However, if you are able to quit smoking, lose excess pounds, reduce alcohol consumption, increase physical activity, and treat high blood pressure, obesity, and diabetes, you can reduce your risk of heart disease.

Signs and Symptoms of Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

A sudden cardiac arrest is a medical emergency. Symptoms include a sudden loss of consciousness, pulse, and breathing. These symptoms come on quickly and are immediately life-threatening.

Symptoms prior to cardiac arrest include the following:

  • Chest pain
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Irregular or racing heartbeat
  • Lightheadedness
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting

Symptoms of a heart attack can vary. The most common and obvious symptom is chest pain, but a person having a heart attack may experience the following:

  • Sweating
  • A cold sweat
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Feelings of impending doom
  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain, stiffness, or numbness in the arms, neck, or face
  • Lightheadedness, dizziness, or fainting
  • Irregular or fast heartbeat
  • A blueish tinge to lips, fingers, and toes

In many cases, women experience different heart attack symptoms than men, leading to delayed or misdiagnosis. Women are more likely to experience a sensation of chest pressure or tightness rather than pain, pain in both arms as opposed to only the left arm, excessive fatigue, and anxiety.2

Prevention of Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack 

Minimizing risk factors is the best way to reduce your risk of cardiac arrest and heart attacks. For example, if you smoke, consume alcohol in excess, or are concerned about your body composition, contact a doctor on call to schedule a preventative healthcare appointment. Online doctors can discuss your medical history, provide an online diagnosis, and prescribe online prescriptions, if necessary. No matter what time of the day or night, if you are concerned that you may have a medical condition that increases your risk for cardiac arrest or heart attack, you can get 24-hour doctor care access whenever you need it.

What to Do in a Cardiac Emergency

Cardiac arrests and heart attacks are medical emergencies in which survival depends on how quickly you receive optimal, heart-saving care. If you know the signs and symptoms of these two conditions, you will be prepared to act. Verify that someone is unresponsive and call for anyone nearby to help. Then call 911 as quickly as possible. One person can begin high-quality CPR while the other talks to the 911 operator and tries to get an automatic external defibrillator (AED).

Telemedicine is not appropriate care for a heart attack or cardiac arrest. However, it is the perfect venue for easy and convenient access to preventative healthcare. Telemedicine can prevent heart attacks and cardiac arrests by providing lifestyle counseling, encouraging medication adherence, refilling prescriptions, treating comorbid health conditions, and preventing disease progression.


While we strive to always provide accurate, current, and safe advice in all of our articles and guides, it’s important to stress that they are no substitute for medical advice from a doctor or healthcare provider. You should always consult a practicing professional who can diagnose your specific case. The content we’ve included in this guide is merely meant to be informational and does not constitute medical advice.


  1. Tsao CW, Aday AW, Almarzooq ZI, Alonso A, Beaton AZ, Bittencourt MS, Boehme AK, Buxton AE, Carson AP, Commodore-Mensah Y, Elkind MSV, Evenson KR, Eze-Nliam C, Ferguson JF, Generoso G, Ho JE, Kalani R, Khan SS, Kissela BM, Knutson KL, Levine DA, Lewis TT, Liu J, Loop MS, Ma J, Mussolino ME, Navaneethan SD, Perak AM, Poudel R, Rezk-Hanna M, Roth GA, Schroeder EB, Shah SH, Thacker EL, VanWagner LB, Virani SS, Voecks JH, Wang NY, Yaffe K, Martin SS. Heart Disease and Stroke Statistics-2022 Update: A Report From the American Heart Association. Circulation. 2022 Feb 22;145(8):e153-e639. doi: 10.1161/CIR.0000000000001052. Epub 2022 Jan 26. Erratum in: Circulation. 2022 Sep 6;146(10):e141. PMID: 35078371.
  2. Jackson MN, McCulloch BJ. ‘Heart attack’ symptoms and decision-making: the case of older rural women. Rural Remote Health. 2014;14:2560. Epub 2014 May 5. PMID: 24793837.

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