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Heart Attack vs Heart Failure

The heart works hard to provide your body with the oxygen it needs to function. It works while you sleep, eat, talk, run. It’s always working. But if the heart isn’t able to perform properly, then serious health conditions can develop. The most common cause of heart inefficiency is heart disease, which is also the #1 cause of death in the US. But this term refers to a number of different heart conditions, including 2 conditions that many people confuse: heart attack and heart failure. A heart attack is a sudden loss of blood supply to the heart, while heart failure is the heart’s inability to pump efficiently.

Heart Attack Basics

A heart attack is when there is a sudden loss of blood supply to the heart. Just like your other organs, the heart needs oxygen to perform. So, when blood supply is blocked, tissues in the heart can begin to die. Additionally, this blockage prevents oxygenated blood from being pumped throughout the body.

Heart Failure Basics

Despite the name, heart failure doesn’t actually mean the heart has stopped pumping. Instead, it means that the heart isn’t able to pump effectively to meet the body’s demand for oxygen. That could be because the heart isn’t filling up with enough blood or some of the muscles are too weak to pump properly. This condition is not a sudden condition but instead develops over time.

Heart Attack Causes

Heart attacks are primarily caused by coronary artery disease, which is when plaque builds up on the walls of arteries. This plaque makes the arteries narrower and stiffer, and it can also break off and form a clot. If an artery gets clogged with plaque, blood can’t return to the heart properly, resulting in a heart attack.

Heart Failure Causes

Heart failure is usually the result of another serious health condition that puts strain on the heart over time. Think: obesity, diabetes, HIV, lung disease, or high blood pressure. Coronary artery disease is also one of the main causes of heart failure, so it’s important to maintain cholesterol levels to avoid plaque buildup.

Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attacks are mainly characterized by sudden chest pain; however, the symptoms of a heart attack can be different for everyone. Individuals may also experience pain in their arms, shoulders, neck, or jaw. Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Lightheadedness

  • Nausea

  • Cold sweats

Heart Failure Symptoms

Heart failure symptoms vary and can include the following:

  • Cough

  • Fatigue

  • Difficulty breathing

  • Blue fingernails or lips

  • Difficulty sleeping

  • Loss of appetite

  • Nausea

  • Unexplained weight gain

  • Swelling

  • Frequent urination

However, these symptoms usually appear over time and not suddenly. That’s because heart failure, unlike a heart attack, is a gradual condition — meaning its symptoms get worse over time.

Heart Attack Diagnosis

Usually, to diagnose a heart attack, a doctor may perform diagnostic testing — like blood test, stress test, coronary angiography, or an electrocardiogram (EKG) — due to the time sensitivity of a heart attack.

Heart Failure Diagnosis

To diagnose heart failure, a doctor may refer to your medical history or perform a physical exam and diagnostic tests, including an EKG, blood test, CT scan, MRI, or stress test.

Heart Attack Treatment

A heart attack needs quick treatment to help prevent lasting damage to the heart or other organs. Doctors may sometimes prescribe medications even before an official diagnosis to help thin the blood and prevent any other clots from forming. These medications can include aspirin, nitroglycerin, oxygen therapy, or beta-blockers. After an official diagnosis is made, doctors may prescribe medications to help dissolve the blood clot or restore blood flow. An individual might also be given pain killers. If the clot does not break up, a doctor may have to remove a blood clot or perform a coronary angioplasty to restore blood flow. This procedure involves using a small balloon to inflate the artery and inserting a stent, or small mesh tube, to keep the artery open and clear. A doctor will work with you on a long-term treatment plan to reduce your risk of another heart attack and manage any underlying conditions that may have contributed to a heart attack.

Heart Failure Treatment

Heart failure treatments include medications that help lower blood pressure and slow the heart rate to reduce the stress on the heart. Individuals with heart failure may also take diuretic pills to remove excess water from the body, because heart failure can result in water retention and swelling. A doctor will most likely recommend lifestyle changes — like eating healthier, losing weight, or reducing alcohol consumption — to help you manage heart failure and keep it from progressing. As the condition gets more serious, a doctor may recommend heart devices, like a pacemaker, to help establish a healthy pumping rhythm.


The bottom line is that both heart attacks and heart failure are distinct heart conditions. However, they share some of the same underlying health conditions and risk factors. The best way to prevent these conditions is to maintain a healthy lifestyle — quit smoking, eat healthy, exercise regularly, and work with your doctor to manage any existing health conditions.




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