A heart attack and heart failure may seem similar, but they have some distinct differences. Understanding those differences could help save your life.
It can sometimes feel like all you ever hear about are the dangers of heart disease. That isn’t all that surprising. After all, heart disease — which covers a variety of conditions including both heart attacks and heart failures — affects a huge number of people in the United States. Despite the high-profile nature of heart disease, many people don’t know the differences between a heart attack and heart failure and may struggle to identify their condition when they start experiencing symptoms. It’s time to change that! Read on to learn about the differences between the two — what causes them, their symptoms, and how they are each treated.
Defining Heart Attacks and Heart Failure
The biggest difference between a heart attack and heart failure is that a heart attack occurs suddenly while heart failure usually develops gradually. A heart attack occurs when one of the arteries leading to the heart suddenly gets blocked, cutting off blood flow to an area of the heart. Without the oxygen that’s in your blood, the tissues in that area start to die.
In heart disease, the heart muscle gets weaker over time so that it’s no longer able to pump enough blood for your body’s tissues and organs. There are a few different types of heart failure (including left-sided systolic or diastolic failure, right-sided failure, and congestive heart failure), but this same general definition holds true for all of them.
The Differences Between a Heart Attack and Heart Failure
Although both conditions fall under the larger umbrella of heart disease and they undeniably have some similarities, there are some distinct differences that can help you tell the two apart.
A heart attack is often the result of coronary artery disease, a condition that causes plaque to build up on the walls of the arteries through a process called atherosclerosis. As the plaque builds up, the arteries become progressively narrower. If a piece of that plaque breaks off, it can cause a blood clot in the arteries, leading to a heart attack.
Heart failure is typically the result of conditions that force your heart to work harder to pump blood or that simply weaken your heart. These conditions include heart valve disease, alcohol overuse, lung disease, thyroid disease, obesity, coronary artery disease, and more.
While heart attack symptoms can vary a lot from person to person — and can also differ between genders — there are some signs that are more common than others. These include:
- Pain or a feeling of pressure in the center of your chest. This is the most common heart attack symptom, though some people may not experience it at all.
- Pain or discomfort in your upper body, including your arms, jaw, neck, back and stomach above your belly button.
- Difficulty breathing.
- Vomiting or nausea, lightheadedness, shortness of breath, breaking out in a cold sweat, and feeling very tired are all common symptoms in women.
There is some overlap in symptoms of heart failure. Shortness of breath (especially when lying down) is one of the main symptoms of the condition. Other common symptoms include:
- Coughing or wheezing
- Irregular or fast heartbeat
- Swelling around your legs, ankles, or stomach and general weight gain from retaining fluid
Heart attacks need to be treated immediately. Call 911 right away if you suspect you might be having a heart attack. Your long-term treatment following a heart attack will likely include medications that dissolve blood clots, blood thinners, nitroglycerin, and beta blockers or ACE inhibitors. You might also be treated with a percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI) procedure, which helps to open the blocked coronary artery and restore blood flow, or a coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG). Your doctor will also likely recommend some lifestyle changes like avoiding unhealthy foods, quitting smoking, being active, limiting alcohol, and managing your weight.
Treating heart failure is usually an ongoing process that involves many of the same medications and lifestyle changes that are used to treat a heart attack. You may also need to take diuretic pills to get rid of extra water. If your heart failure gets worse, you may need surgery to install a device that helps your heart function normally, like a pacemaker, a ventricular assist device, or an implanted defibrillator.
Stay on Top of Your Heart Health
If you’re worried that you might be at risk of a heart attack or heart failure — either because you are experiencing symptoms or you have a condition that increases the risk of heart disease — it’s important that you schedule an appointment with a qualified cardiologist specialist right away.
At Tri-City Cardiology, our heart specialists will help you understand your heart and develop a heart-health action plan that keeps you feeling your best. At Tri-City, we believe the heart is the most important muscle in your body. Request an appointment today so you can get on the path to heart health.