How To Tell If It’s A Heart Attack, Stroke, Or Cardiac Arrest

Heart attack, stroke, and cardiac arrest fall under a single umbrella: heart problems. And while they all count as a form of heart disease, each episode is quite different. Knowing the ins and outs of each one will help you stay prepared.

Heart disease is no joke, after all. It’s the leading cause of death for American men and women. Each year, heart disease kills 610,000 people. That’s 1 in every 4 deaths! Within most ethnicities, heart disease also takes first place. Vital risk factors include high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and smoking. In the United States, almost 47 percent of adults have at least one of these factors.1


Every heart problem has different warning signs. If caught early, there’s hope for recovery. Here’s what you need to know.

1. Heart Attack

Chest pain, tightness and shortness of breath are the signs of a heart attack


Also known as a myocardial infarction, a heart attack happens when part of the heart doesn’t get enough blood. This can seriously damage the heart.2 Chest pain, tightness, shortness of breath, and nausea are the most common signs. The symptoms might come and go – but don’t ignore them! Pain and discomfort may spread to the left or right arm, back, neck, or upper stomach. Paleness and sweating is also common.

Women are more likely to have nausea, vomiting, and breathing difficulties. This difference is extremely important to keep in mind.3 Roughly 790,000 Americans have a heart attack each year. If you suspect that someone is having a heart attack, get help ASAP. Every single minute counts.


2. Stroke

Unlike heart attacks, symptoms of a stroke are more related to the nerves and brain

A stroke happens when the brain doesn’t get enough blood. It’s similar to a heart attack in the sense that there’s a problem with blood flow. However, the brain cells are the ones to take a hit. This can happen in just a few minutes. The most common kind is an ischemic stroke, which is caused by a blood clot that blocks a brain’s blood vessel. A hemorrhagic stroke happens when a blood vessel breaks or leaks, creating pressure that damages brain cells.


A “mini stroke”, or transient ischemic attack, can also happen if a blood vessel is blocked for a short time. In this case, brain cell damage doesn’t last forever.4 Unlike heart attacks, symptoms are more related to the nerves and brain. Sudden weakness, paralysis, and numbness – especially on one side – are tell-tale signs. Confusion, trouble speaking, and dizziness are also common.5

Each year, 795,000 strokes occur in the country. It affects someone every 40 seconds, but about 60 percent of stroke deaths happen outside of a hospital.6 Again, knowing the signs can save a life.


3. Cardiac Arrest

Symptoms of a cardiac arrest include fainting and no pulse

Cardiac arrest and heart attack are often used interchangeably, but they’re totally different. In a heart attack, the heart is pumping but blood flow is blocked. A cardiac arrest happens when the heart suddenly stops beating. The cause? A malfunction with the heart’s electrical system. Specifically, abnormal heart rhythms called arrhythmias are to blame.7 The first and major sign of cardiac arrest is fainting and no pulse. Right before fainting, some may have a fast heartbeat. Chest pain, nausea, vomiting, or shortness of breath may crop up within an hour before the episode.8


If any of these symptoms appear, get help ASAP. About 300,000 cardiac arrests happen each year.9 It’s less common than heart attacks and strokes, but just as important.

Remember, the sooner medical help arrives, the sooner a person can be saved. Don’t waste any time calling 911, even if you aren’t sure. It’s better to be safe than sorry.