Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: How to Reduce the Risk Factors

ProTrainings Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: How to Reduce the Risk Factors

Table of Contents

  1. What Is Cardiac Arrest? 
  2. What Is a Heart Attack? 
  3. Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack
    1. Signs 
    2. Symptoms
    3. Treatment
    4. Outcome
  4. Causes of Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack 
  5. How to Reduce the Risks of Cardiac Arrest
  6. How Can I Get CPR Certified?

Cardiac arrest and heart attack are both major medical emergencies that can look the same to an untrained bystander. 

Being able to tell the difference between cardiac arrest and heart attack is vital for knowing how to treat each one in an emergency and thus improving the victim’s chances of survival.

The signs, symptoms, and treatment of a cardiac arrest versus a heart attack are actually different. 

According to UC Health, both conditions must be treated quickly to reduce the risk of major complications or death.

Here’s what to know about the causes, signs, and risk factors of cardiac arrest versus heart attack, as well as the best ways to treat both.

If you prefer to start with a visual guide, check out our infographic on the differences between a heart attack and cardiac arrest.

What Is Cardiac Arrest? 

Cardiac arrest is defined as a sudden, unexpected ceasing, or arresting, of the heartbeat.  

How does this happen? There is a network of cells that transmit electrical signals to keep your heart beating. When that functioning is interrupted, the heart’s electrical system malfunctions. 

When the body’s electrical pulse malfunctions, several patterns can occur. 

Ventricular fibrillation: a rapid, irregular heartbeat.  

Ventricular tachycardia: an extremely rapid heartbeat.

Asystole: no electrical activity occurring in or around the heart.

Pulseless electrical activity: internal electrical signals are firing, but no mechanical heartbeat occurs. 

In any of these cases, immediate treatment is required to restore the heart’s normal rhythm.   

In cardiac arrest, a person will not have a detectable pulse and will lose consciousness, while having a  heart attack does not necessarily cause someone to become unconscious.

Unfortunately, 9 out of 10 people who have an out-of-hospital cardiac arrest (OHCA) will not survive. 

Even if people do survive, they can suffer serious brain injuries, organ damage, or long-term psychological distress.

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack is also known as a myocardial infarction

Heart attacks happen when one or more of the two main coronary arteries become blocked

Fatty, cholesterol-rich deposits called plaques can form inside the vessels of the heart. 

When these plaques rupture, they can form a blood clot. The clot blocks blood flow in the arteries, leading to a heart attack

Some heart attacks can strike suddenly, but many people receive warning signs and symptoms far in advance. 

One of these early warning signs is angina, which refers to chest pain that lingers for days or weeks and doesn’t go away. 

While heart attacks have risk factors rooted in hereditary disease and genetic conditions, lifestyle choices including diet, smoking, and drug use are major contributors. 

Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

Though the two terms are often used reciprocally, cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack.

ProTrainings Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack: How to Reduce the Risk Factors

As we learned above, a heart attack happens when blocked arteries stop blood flow to the heart. Heart attacks can lead to cardiac arrest, however, because the blockages may disrupt the electrical signals to the heart. 

Cardiac arrest cannot and will not lead to a heart attack.

Share the signs, symptoms, and outcomes of cardiac arrest versus heart attack with this downloadable PDF.


During a heart attack, a person may become faint or sweaty or experience trouble breathing. The most recognizable symptoms of a heart attack include chest pain, which can radiate to the left arm, jaw, or back.  

In cases of cardiac arrest, however, there’s often no warning. 

Some people experience weakness, shortness of breath or heart palpitations in the minutes before a cardiac arrest. During cardiac arrest, the person will quickly lose consciousness and their pulse will no longer be detectable. 


It may sound counterintuitive, but a heart attack can be symptomatic of an unhealthy lifestyle.

Learn to recognize signs and symptoms of a heart attack with this video: 

A heart attack is a circulatory issue,
whereas cardiac arrest is an electrical issue.

Since cardiac arrest is such a sudden, life-threatening condition, sometimes no symptoms can be discerned until life is lost. 

But symptoms like agonal breathing, as explained in this video, can be displayed.


Both heart attack and cardiac arrest require immediate medical attention. 

In cases of cardiac arrest, the first line of treatment is CPR and AED usage, to get the heart back to a normal rhythm. According to Johns Hopkins Medicine, chest compressions increase blood flow to the organs. 

Unlike a cardiac arrest, a heart attack doesn’t usually cause the heart to stop beating

While emergency treatment of a heart attack can involve CPR, medical treatment requires the restoration of blood flow to the blocked artery. 

This can be done with clot-dissolving medications (thrombolytics), surgeries like angioplasty and stent placement, or coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG) to open the blocked artery and reestablish blood flow to the heart muscle.


Survival from cardiac arrest depends on the underlying cause, the speed of response, and the effectiveness of CPR and defibrillation. 

The longer treatment is delayed, the worse the prognosis. 

Cardiac arrest patients will not be able
to be revived unless they receive CPR. 

Even with emergency medical treatment, the survival rate for out-of-hospital cardiac arrest is only about 1 in 10. 

Conversely, with immediate and proper treatment, the long-term survival rate from heart attacks is 97% to 98%. 

Causes of Cardiac Arrest vs. Heart Attack

Cardiac arrest is sometimes also known as sudden cardiac arrest. And it can be just that: sudden.

According to the American Heart Association (AHA), the most common cause of cardiac arrest is when the electrical system of an already diseased heart malfunctions. 

The AHA also reports other causes of cardiac arrest including: 

  • Scarring of the heart tissue 
  • Thickened heart muscle (known as cardiomyopathy)
  • Heart medications 
  • Electrical abnormalities
  • Abnormalities in the blood vessels
  • Recreational drugs

By contrast, heart attacks are primarily caused by coronary heart disease (CHD). 

As the NHS reports, your risk of developing CHD is increased by:

  • Smoking cigarettes, cigars, or cigarillos
  • Consuming a high-fat, high-cholesterol diet
  • Being diagnosed or living with diabetes
  • Having high cholesterol
  • Having high blood pressure (known as hypertension)
  • Being overweight or obese

Certain infections, autoimmune conditions, or a family history of heart attack can also increase your risk. 

How to Reduce the Risks of Cardiac Arrest

Not smoking, exercising daily, reducing alcohol intake, eating a diet rich in fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keeping a healthy weight are all main contributors to reducing the risk of cardiac arrest. 

The healthier your heart, the less chance
of a sudden cardiac arrest.

A study from Sweden’s Karolinska Institute showed that people could reduce their chances of cardiac arrest by 80% by adopting the lifestyle choices listed above. 

Not using illicit drugs and treating minor heart conditions such as low blood pressure also reduce the risk of cardiac arrest, according to Dignity Health

But there have been multiple examples of extremely healthy people suffering cardiac arrest, including athletes and professional sports people. Unfortunately, cardiac arrest does not discriminate. 

Electrical pulse disruption can happen to any
body type at any fitness level.

How Can I Get CPR Certified?

ProTrainings can deliver CPR training to workplaces without having to organize lengthy and costly days away from the office. Our services are delivered on site by a certified trainer. Contact us today to learn more about our group and remote staff CPR certification programs.