How to differentiate between heart attack, heart failure and cardiac arrest

Infographic for heart attack, cardiac arrest and heart failure

Heart attack

A heart attack is a state when the blood supply to the heart gets blocked or partly blocked. In this situation, the coronary artery that normally supplies blood to the heart is damaged. The longer the time the artery is blocked, the bigger the heart attack.

Heart attacks are caused usually because of coronary heart disease/conditions which causes fatty deposits called plaques to form around the wall of the coronary arteries. When these plaques break they cause a blood clot to form which causes blockage of blood supply to the parts of the heart muscles which leads to most of the heart attacks.

The medical term for a heart attack is "myocardial infarction" or "MI."

What are the symptoms of a heart attack?

People having a heart attack often describe feeling: 

  • Pain, discomfort or pressure in the chest
  • Shortening  of breath
  • Sweating or cold
  • Pain or tingling in other parts of upper body, like arms, back, neck jaw or stomach
  • Nausea or heart burn
  • Lightheadedness
  • Uneven heartbeat

If you think you or anyone around you might be having a heart attack, don’t wait – call an ambulance.  

Sudden cardiac arrest

Sudden cardiac arrest (SCA) is when the heart suddenly stops beating. This is a medical emergency that needs to be treated right away.

The heart has a built-in electrical system that allows it to be in normal rhythm. When this electrical system has a problem, it leads to abnormal heart rhythm. This abnormal heart rhythm that happens most often in SCA is called "ventricular fibrillation" or "v fib."

SCA is different than a heart attack. In a heart attack, one of the coronary arteries gets blocked, and heart muscle dies. But the heart still beats.

SCA is most likely to happen in people who already have a heart problem, whether they know about their heart problem or not.

What are the symptoms of SCA?

Many people do not have any "warning" symptoms before their SCA. But up to half of people do have symptoms before their SCA. These can happen either just before their SCA, or in the days leading up to it. Symptoms might include:

  • Chest pain or trouble in breathing
  • Feeling heart racing or beating out of sync or skipping beats
  • Feeling weak or dizzy

When SCA happens, a person loses consciousness, has no pulse, and is not breathing. If you find someone in this state, call an ambulance.

Heart failure

Heart failure is a condition in which the heart is not able to pump blood well because of which the blood is not moved around the body. As a result, fluids starts building up in the body and blood is not supplied to organs. This all leads to symptoms such as swelling, trouble in breathing and feeling tired.

Heart failure doesn’t mean that heart has completely stopped functioning or beating. It is a condition where the heart is not able to function as it should.

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

There are no symptoms if the heart does not pump well, but as the condition progresses it can cause:

  • Tiredness or lightheadedness
  • Trouble in breathing
  • Racing heartbeat
  • Swelling on feet, ankles, legs or belly