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Is there a difference between Sudden Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack?


One of the common questions we get asked during a First Aid course is “aren’t Cardiac Arrest and Heart Attack the same thing?” While both cardiac arrest and heart attack relate to issues of the heart, each have a different cause.


Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA)

Sudden Cardiac Arrest can be thought of as an ‘electrical’ problem. It changes the rhythm of the heart, causing an irregular heartbeat. In turn leading to oxygenated blood not being circulated to the brain and other vital organs. The cause of this electrical problem is not always clear and can affect anyone of any age. Often the first sign of a person suffering from Sudden Cardiac Arrest is a sudden collapse, not conscious and not breathing.

In around 40% of Cardiac Arrest cases the person may make gasping like  breathing sounds. This is referred to as Agonal Breathing. This is not considered to be regular breathing and you should commence CPR as soon as possible.

Heart Attack

A Heart Attack can be thought of as a ‘plumbing or circulation problem’. in which a blockage of the heart occurs. This results in rich oxygen blood not reaching a section of the heart, leading to that part of the heart dying. Unlike Sudden Cardiac Arrest, the heart continues to beat during a Heart Attack.

Symptoms of Heart Attack

The symptoms of a heart attack also differ, with a variety of different symptoms. One of the most common symptoms is shortness of breath. They may also have pale skin, nausea or vomiting, sweating or feeling dizzy or light headed. A Heart Attack can occur without chest pain or discomfort and a victim may pass off their symptoms as just indigestion. They can also vary from person to person and not always be sudden or severe.

Women are more likely to experience non-chest pain symptoms of a heart attack than men. They may also feel the warning signs don’t relate to a heart attack.

In the event of a suspected Heart Attack ask the person to stop what they are doing. If the symptoms are severe, have lasted for more than 10 minutes or get progressively worse call 000. It’s better to be safe than sorry as too many people have died from a Heart Attack as a result of not calling an ambulance early.

The link between a Heart Attack and Sudden Cardiac Arrest is that when Cardiac  Arrest occurs heart attack is a common cause.


In the event of Sudden Cardiac Arrest (SCA) it’s important to follow the chain of survival.

What to do if Sudden Cardiac Arrest Occurs

-Recognise the signs of Sudden Cardiac Arrest.  For each minute that CPR is delayed, the person’s chance of survival drops by 10%.

-Call 000 straight away. It can take between 10-15 Minutes for an ambulance to arrive.  

-Commence high quality CPR which is fast, deep and constant. Only stop when using the AED.

-Early use of an AED (An Automatic External Defibrillator) is the only proven way to shock the heart back into a normal rhythm.

-Advanced Care by paramedics and medical staff.

-Learning CPR. It  can be a life saving skill that can make all the difference in the event of a Sudden Cardiac event occurring.

Written by Ben, Senior Trainer


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