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Carolinas HealthCare System

Many people have heard the terms cardiac arrest and heart attack and think these terms are interchangeable. However, they are two related but different conditions. Knowing the difference—and what to do if either occurs—is an important part of heart health.

Basic Differences

Cardiac arrest is a leading cause of death in the US, accounting for more than 300,000 adult deaths each year. It is caused when the heart’s electrical system malfunctions. The heartbeat becomes irregular or stops, disrupting blood flow to organs throughout the body. Unless treated, cardiac arrest results in death in a matter of minutes. Cardiac arrest may be caused by a weakened or diseased heart muscle, an abnormality of its electrical system, or because of a heart attack.

A heart attack describes the event when one or more of the arteries in the heart become abruptly blocked. Blood is prevented from flowing to sections of the heart, and if this flow is blocked for a long enough time, irreversible damage to the heart muscle occurs. According to the Centers for Disease Control, about 715,000 Americans suffer heart attacks each year.


Cardiac arrest may be heralded by dizziness and light-headedness, but more often it occurs suddenly and without warning. Those suffering a cardiac arrest will become unresponsive and their breathing erratic.

Heart attack symptoms, on the other hand, include chest pain, shortness of breath, and/or discomfort in one or both arms or the jaw. These symptoms may be intense at onset, or slowly progress over hours to days.

What Can You Do?

Since a heart attack may lead to cardiac arrest, those who are experiencing heart attack symptoms should seek immediate attention. Call 911 for assistance. Emergency Management System (EMS) personnel will also call ahead to the emergency room. The longer a heart attack is untreated, the more damage it will cause.

If you should witness someone experiencing cardiac arrest, call 911 immediately and then begin CPR. If a defibrillator (AED) is available, it should be used as soon as possible. If treatment with CPR or defibrillation is not instituted immediately, death or irreversible brain damage will occur in minutes.

Know these signs and symptoms of heart attack and cardiac arrest. Learn how to perform CPR and to use an AED. You can save a life.