What is the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

A cardiac arrest and a heart attack both affect the heart. Many people believe these serious conditions are the same but in fact they’re not – they’re totally different medical emergencies. In this blog post we explain the difference between a cardiac arrest and a heart attack.Young Woman Performing Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation

Cardiac arrest


A cardiac arrest occurs when the heart suddenly stops beating and the person stops breathing. They are clinically dead and unresponsive.

A cardiac arrest can occur for many reasons including medical conditions and traumatic injuries.

A cardiac arrest patient requires cardio-pulmonary resuscitation (CPR). CPR involves chest compressions and rescue breaths to keep that person ‘alive’ by enabling oxygen rich blood  to flow round their body via the chest compressions mimicking the heart’s ‘push’.

Heart attack

A heart attack on the other hand is a condition where the blood supply to the heart muscle itself is compromised. This leads to the heart tissue being starved of oxygen and can lead to tissue death.

The pain from a heart attack arises directly from the starved tissue, and although arising in the centre or left side of the chest, can radiate to the neck and left arm.

A heart attack does not usually result in loss of consciousness. The patient is still breathing and has a pulse (the majority of the heart is able to function and pump blood around the body).

Occasionally a heart attack can lead to a patient not breathing or without a pulse (a cardiac arrest) and in this case CPR is necessary.

With modern medicine most people survive a heart attack and recover completely. The same unfortunately isn’t true for someone who suffers a cardiac arrest, though numbers of survivors are growing with increased public familiarity with CPR, quick response times by ambulances and health care professionals as well as public access defibrillators.

Want to learn CPR? Visit out free online first aid course module: how to perform Cardio-pulmonary resuscitation

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4 Responses

  1. Jeff says:

    Yes this a common question on First aid training courses. would add to the information above, that some casualties experience heart attacks, but dont are not even aware they have had one.

  2. Diane Clark says:

    Very helpful

  3. Linkzelda41 says:

    Thanks for giving the distinction of what is probably one of the most equivocated terminologies in relation to health and first aid! And CPR is definitely a skill people shouldn’t take for granted, and should immediately find ways to gain qualifications to perform the life-saving task as well!

    It’s amazing on how people state they had several cardiac arrests when they most likely had heart attacks. Because if an individual actually had so many cardiac arrests along with medication and treatment, it would raise questions on whether or not that person has serious condition to be looked after.

  4. cpefley says:

    Silly me! I didn’t even know there was a difference. Thank you for the very detailed information! I will keep this in mind.

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