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Woman speaks to doctor

Know the Difference Between Heart Attack and Cardiac Arrest

By Derek Robinson, Vice President and Chief Medical Officer, Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Illinois

Heart disease continues to be a topic that deserves attention because it is the leading cause of death affecting approximately 350,000 Americans every year. Oftentimes the terms heart attack and cardiac arrest are used interchangeably but they are different. 

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to the heart is blocked, which is a circulation problem. Heart attacks are caused by blood clot formation which can stop blood flow to the heart. Sudden cardiac arrest is the sudden loss of all heart activity due to an irregular heart rhythm. 

Heart attack symptoms include:

  • Chest pain that may feel like pressure, tightness, pain, squeezing or aching.
  • Pain or discomfort that spreads to the shoulder, arm, back, neck, jaw, teeth or sometimes the upper belly.
  • Cold sweat.
  • Fatigue.
  • Heartburn or indigestion.
  • Lightheadedness or sudden dizziness.
  • Nausea.
  • Shortness of breath.

Some heart attacks are sudden and intense, but most start slowly, with mild pain or discomfort, so pay attention to your body. Symptoms may differ between men and women, but medical help is needed immediately. 

On the other hand, cardiac arrest is when an electrical malfunction in the heart causes an irregular heartbeat leading to death if treatment is not received in minutes. A person experiencing cardiac arrest may collapse, become unresponsive, may not be breathing, or is gasping for breath. 

Cardiopulmonary resuscitation, of CPR, is something we all can do to help someone in cardiac arrest. The fact is 80% of sudden cardiac arrest happens outside of the hospital, where we work, play or live. 

We all may remember last year watching in aghast when NFL star Damar Hamlin collapsed on the field due to cardiac arrest. But he survived thanks to the fast action by his trainer in administering CPR.

The great news is you don’t need a medical degree to learn CPR. According to the American Heart Association, which offers online and in-person classes, a bystrander providing CPR can double or triple survival chances. 

Visit our Heart Disease and High Blood Pressure web page for information. 

The above material is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be a substitute for the independent medical judgment of a physician. Physicians and other health care providers are encouraged to use their own best medical judgment based upon all available information and the condition of the patient in determining the best course of treatment.

A Division of Health Care Service Corporation, a Mutual Legal Reserve Company, an Independent Licensee of the Blue Cross and Blue Shield Association