How to respond to heart attacks and cardiac arrest


In this article:

  • According to the American Heart Association, cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, accounting for nearly one million deaths a year.

  • While both impact heart health, cardiac arrests and heart attacks are not the same, and they require different responses, treatments and care. 

  • Time is essential during a cardiac event, so learning to recognize the signs of heart attacks and cardiac arrests can help you act swiftly to save a life.

What do you do if you are with a loved one or friend and they start to seem a little “off” — like they become short of breath, get a heavy feeling in their chest, or pass out? How do you know if it is a cardiac event or something else? 

Cardiovascular disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, and the American Heart Association estimates that it contributes to nearly one million deaths a year. And about 70% of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests happen at home. Knowing the warning signs of the different types of cardiac events will help you know what to do next and could be the difference between life and death. 

For National CPR and AED Awareness Week, we’re sharing how you can be ready when someone you love experiences a cardiac event.

Cardiac arrest and heart attacks are not the same

While both are serious medical emergencies, cardiac arrests and heart attacks are not the same. 

Cardiac arrest happens suddenly when the heart unexpectedly stops beating. It occurs because of an electrical problem in the heart.

Heart attacks happen less immediately when a blocked artery prevents oxygen-rich blood from flowing into the heart. They are a result of coronary artery disease.

Signs of cardiac arrest

Cardiac arrest comes on quickly, seemingly without warning. More severe than a heart attack, cardiac arrest can result in death within minutes if the person does not get necessary medical care.

  • A person experiencing cardiac arrest may:
  • Suddenly collapse or lose consciousness 
  • Stop breathing or suddenly start gasping for air
  • Be unresponsive when shaken or shouted at
  • Not have a pulse

Some people know they have health conditions—like an arrhythmia (an abnormal heartbeat), a congenital heart defect, an electrical disturbance in the heart, structural issues in the heart or a condition that weakens the heart muscle—that make them susceptible to cardiac arrest. Other factors, like extreme physical exertion, trauma, or exposure to extreme temperatures can also increase a person’s risk for cardiac arrest.

Signs of heart attack

Heart attacks are usually associated with chest pain. But that pain may not be sharp — it often feels like a pressure or heaviness in the center of the chest that does not go away. 

Other signs someone is having a heart attack may include:

  • Pain that spreads to the arm, back, shoulder, jaw, neck, teeth or upper abdomen
  • Heartburn, indigestion and nausea
  • Shortness of breath or difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness, lightheadedness or unconsciousness
  • Profuse sweating

Act fast to save a life

Time is of the essence during a cardiac event. Get help immediately if you are with someone who shows signs of either cardiac arrest or a heart attack. The steps you need to take are a little different for each, but with cardiac arrest and heart attacks, the more quickly a person gets care, the better their chances of a successful outcome. 

During a cardiac arrest, begin CPR right away

If you see someone who has fainted or is unresponsive and you think they are experiencing cardiac arrest, they must get immediate, high-quality cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR).

  • Act quickly and follow these steps:
  • Confirm that they are unresponsive.
  • Call 911.
  • Check their pulse.
  • If there is no pulse, begin CPR until emergency medical services arrive.

Getting CPR before the paramedics arrive can help patients have a better outcome and a greater chance of surviving a cardiac arrest. And some CPR is better than no CPR, so even if you aren’t CPR certified, you should still try giving CPR.

During a heart attack, call 911 first

You must get medical attention immediately if you are experiencing a heart attack. Do not drive yourself to the hospital.

Follow these steps during a heart attack:

  • Call 911.
  • Give the dispatcher a detailed description of the symptoms.
  • Stay on the phone with the dispatcher until the paramedics arrive. 
  • If possible, chew on aspirin, which can help improve circulation and reduce blood clots. 
  • If you have an automated external defibrillator (AED), use it while the paramedics are en route.

Don’t use CPR for a heart attack

The American Heart Association recommends against using CPR during a heart attack. That is because CPR is an emergency technique that restores blood flow and breathing when a person’s heart stops or slows severely, such as during a cardiac arrest. Sometimes medical professionals may use CPR to help patients during a heart attack, but it cannot reverse the damage caused by it.

Keep an AED for cardiac arrests and heart attacks

An AED is a small, portable device that checks a person’s heart rhythm and delivers an electric shock to regulate or restart their heartbeat if one is not detected. Using an AED to treat someone with an abnormal heart rhythm can help increase their chance of survival.

Formal AED training is available but unnecessary because the devices are designed to be easy to use. Each AED has adhesive-backed electrodes that are placed on the patient’s chest while a built-in computer checks the heart rhythm. If the AED determines that defibrillation is needed, a recorded voice prompts you to push the shock button and walks you through the process.

Learn more and find a provider

Are you or someone you love at risk for cardiovascular disease? The experts at the Swedish Heart & Vascular Institute offer cardiac care that can make a lasting difference. Call them at 206-320-4100 to learn more. You can also visit the Swedish website to learn more about health and safety classes offered at Swedish, including CPR training.

Swedish Virtual Care connects you face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your symptoms, provide instruction, and follow up as needed. If you need to find a provider, you can use our provider directory.

Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.

Related resources

Anyone can save a life with hands-only CPR

Eight essentials for heart health

Experts recommend changes to low-dose aspirin protocol. What do you need to know?

Heart disease and stroke prevention: It starts with knowing the risks

This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.

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About the Author

The Swedish Heart & Vascular Team is committed to bringing you many years of expertise and experience to help you understand how to prevent, treat and recover from cardiovascular diseases and conditions. From tips to eating better to exercise and everything in between, our clinical experts know how to help you help your heart.

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