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What’s the difference between sudden cardiac arrest and a heart attack?

Many people use these terms interchangeably, but they are two separate medical emergencies.

An easy way to distinguish the two emergencies is to look at them as an electrical issue versus a plumbing issue.


A heart attack occurs when a clot blocks a narrowed coronary artery, depriving the heart muscle of oxygen. In simple terms, blood flow to the heart is blocked. Therefore, it can be viewed as a plumbing issue.

Symptoms of a heart attack can occur suddenly, or they may come and go over a longer period of time – hours, days, and even weeks. The longer a person goes without treatment, the greater the damage to the heart.

It’s important to note that a heart attack can progress to sudden cardiac arrest. In fact, it’s a leading cause of sudden cardiac arrest. So, let’s take a look at how sudden cardiac arrest differs from a heart attack.


Sudden cardiac arrest occurs when there’s an issue with the heart’s electrical system that causes an irregular heartbeat. When the heart’s pumping action isn’t functioning effectively, the heart can’t pump blood to the brain and other vital organs.

Sudden cardiac arrest occurs suddenly and often without warning. Death can occur within minutes without immediate intervention.

The combination of calling 911, early CPR, and early AED use give the best chance of survival.