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"Is it a Stroke, Heart Attack or Cardiac Arrest? "

Know the Difference and What to Do

By Lia Tremblay

Updated October 23, 2008

(LifeWire) - Heart disease can lead to serious medical emergencies, including heart attack, stroke and cardiac arrest. Do you know how these events differ from one another and how to recognize when they're happening?

What Is a Heart Attack?

A heart attack happens when arteries leading to the heart become blocked, reducing blood supply to the heart's muscle tissue. The blockage is usually caused by atherosclerosis - a buildup of fatty tissue that ruptures on the arterial wall, causing a blood clot to form. The lack of blood supply can cause permanent damage to the heart, disabling or even killing the sufferer.

Signs of a heart attack usually occur gradually. They include:

  • Pressure, pain or an uncomfortable sense of "fullness" in the chest. (This is the most common symptom in both men and women.)
  • Discomfort in other parts of the upper body, such as one or both arms, the neck or jaw. (This occurs more frequently in women than men.)
  • Shortness of breath, nausea, light-headedness or unexplained sweating. (This also occurs more frequently in women.)

What to Do: If you're not sure about your symptoms, call your doctor and describe what you're feeling. If the signs are clear, call 911 as soon as possible; an ambulance ride to the hospital is the best way to receive prompt treatment that could make all the difference.

What Is a Stroke?

A stroke occurs when when a blood vessel leading to the brain bursts or becomes suddenly clogged. This prevents parts of the brain from getting oxygen, which can lead to permanent damage or even death.

Signs of a stroke appear suddenly and include:

  • Numbness or weakness, especially on one side of the body
  • Difficulty speaking or understanding
  • Vision trouble in one or both eyes
  • Dizziness or difficulty walking
  • Very severe headache with no known cause

What to Do: If you notice these signs in yourself or someone else, immediately call 911. Make a note of the time the symptoms first appeared; their duration may help doctors determine how to treat the problem.

What Is Cardiac Arrest?

Cardiac arrest occurs when the heart abruptly stops functioning due to a sudden heart arrhythmia called ventricular fibrillation, or VF. VF is usually seen in people who have coronary artery disease or other underlying heart conditions. Since the stopped heart cannot provide oxygen to the rest of the body, death can occur within minutes.

Signs of cardiac arrest are sudden and unmistakable. They include:

  • Failure to respond to stimuli, such as shaking of shoulders or calling of name
  • No normal breathing for at least five seconds.

What to Do: Call 911 and begin CPR immediately. Use an automated external defibrillator (AED) if one is available.


"Cardiac Arrest." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4481>.

"Heart Attack." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4578>.

"Heart Attack, Stroke and Cardiac Arrest Warning Signs." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=3053>.

"Stroke." americanheart.org. 2008. American Heart Association. 15 Oct. 2008 <http://www.americanheart.org/presenter.jhtml?identifier=4755>.

LifeWire, a part of The New York Times Company, provides original and syndicated online lifestyle content. Lia Tremblay is a freelance writer and editor specializing in consumer health care topics. She lives and works in Virginia.

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