Cardiac arrest vs heart attack


"No matter how I go, I want it reported that I drowned in moonlight, strangled by my own bra." Those were the words the late Carrie Fisher wanted to be remembered by. However, the reality is she suffered from fatal cardiac arrest – although initial reports stated a heart attack. We take a look at the difference between cardiac arrest and a heart attack. 

Cardiac arrest

What is it? Cardiac arrest occurs when your heart function suddenly and unexpectedly stops, you lose consciousness and stop breathing. Your heart either stops completely or the rhythm becomes erratic, which prevents it from pumping blood effectively.

Common causes of cardiac arrest include electric shock, drowning, a drug overdose, suffocation or even trauma.

Brain damage starts about four minutes after blood stops circulating through your body – death can happen as quickly as 10 minutes later.

Although different to a heart attack, a heart attack can sometimes trigger an electrical abnormality, which can cause cardiac arrest. 

What are the symptoms? The symptoms of cardiac arrest are usually immediate and drastic:

• No pulse.
• You stop breathing.
• You suddenly collapse.
• You lose consciousness. 

What are the risk factors? Take care if you have a family history of coronary artery disease, you smoke, you have high blood pressure and cholesterol, you’re obese, have diabetes, drink too much alcohol or lead a sedentary lifestyle. 

Read: Men face greater risk of cardiac arrest: study

Heart attack

A heart attack occurs when the flow of blood and oxygen to the heart is blocked by a clot for example, causing damage to the heart muscle.

If the clot partially blocks the flow of blood in the arteries of the heart, it can cause a lack of oxygen to the heart muscle tissue called ischemia. If the clot completely stops the blood flow, then a heart attack develops.

If treatment is not started quickly, the affected area of heart muscle begins to die. 

What are the symptoms? Any of the following symptoms can be a sign of a heart attack and you should seek medical attention immediately:

• Pressure, tightness or pain in your chest or arms. This can spread to your neck, jaw or even back and can feel like indigestion.
• Shortness of breath.
• A cold sweat.
• Fatigue.
• Sudden dizziness.

What are the risk factors? Factors that put you at risk of having a heart attack include your age, whether you smoke, have high blood pressure and cholesterol, diabetes, a family history, stress, obesity or lead a sedentary lifestyle. 

Read: Anger and physical exertion may trigger heart attack

Prevention is better than cure

No matter your age, there are a number of ways to keep your heart healthy. The South African Heart and Stroke Foundation recommends you follow a healthy diet, exercise regularly, be aware of the risks associated with smoking, drinking, high blood pressure, high cholesterol, obesity, diabetes and stress. 

Read more:

45 percent of heart attacks are 'silent'

Heart disease affects women as much as men

The right hospital can make your heart last longer


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