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American Heart Month: What's the Difference Between a Heart Attack and Stroke?

Heart attacks and strokes both occur when blood flow is blocked to a crucial organ, and both are serious emergencies that require immediate medical attention. But do you know the differences between them? Recognizing the signs of a stroke or heart attack quickly can mean the difference between life and death. Read on to learn the difference between a heart attack and stroke.


Stroke Medical Emergency


A stroke occurs when blood flow is disrupted from reaching the brain, typically caused by a blockage or ruptured blood vessel in the brain. This impedes the brain's supply of oxygen, without which brain cells begin to die quickly. Recognizing and treating a stroke immediately is crucial for survival and recovery, as even a surviving patient can experience brain damage from a stroke.


Stroke Symptoms

Stroke Symptoms

Stroke symptoms include the following:

  • Dizziness or loss of balance.
  • Severe headache.
  • Blurriness in one or both eyes.
  • Weakness or numbness in the face, often localized to one side of the body.
  • Speaking difficulty.
  • Comprehension problems when spoken to.

The mnemonic BEFAST is a great way to recognize a stroke quickly:

  • Balance: loss of balance.
  • Eyes: blurred vision.
  • Facial drooping.
  • Arm weakness.
  • Speech difficulties
  • Time is of the essence! If you or someone you know experiences these signs, a quick response can save your life.

Responding to a Stroke

  • Call 911 immediately and be clear that it looks like the person is having a stroke, as paramedics will begin treatment as soon as they arrive.
  • Note the time the symptoms began as well as every symptom you've witnessed, as this information can help responders.
  • Keep the patient safe from falls.
  • Watch their condition closely.

Young Woman Having Heart Attack

Heart Attack

A heart attack occurs when blood flow is disrupted from reaching the heart, due to a blockage in the arteries from plaque that has built up over time. This impedes the heart's supply of oxygen, which damages the heart.


Coronary artery disease, the long-term buildup of plaque in the arteries, forces the heart to pump harder by restricting blood flow, which can also weaken or damage the heart. Plaque can also cause a heart attack by rupturing and forming a clot that blocks blood flow.


Heart Attack Symptoms in Men and Women

Heart Attack Symptoms

Heart attack symptoms are varied and can present themselves differently in women than they do in men. Common symptoms include:

  • Chest pain or tightness.
  • Unexplained upper body pain: arm (especially the left), shoulders, back, neck, jaw, and stomach.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Cold sweats.
  • Weakness, dizziness, or fainting.

These are the heart attack symptoms you're probably most familiar with, but they may be more common in men. Symptoms more common in women can include:

  • Unusual tiredness or fatigue.
  • Insomnia.
  • Nausea or vomiting.
  • Flu-like symptoms.
  • Heartburn or indigestion.

Symptoms of a heart attack in women may last for a longer period of time than in men. Sometimes heart attack symptoms are mistaken for heartburn, angina (chest pain), a gallbladder attack, or other conditions, and this is particularly true for heart attacks in women. Be aware of these symptoms, and seek medical attention for them.

Responding to a Heart Attack

  • Immediately call 911 or seek nearby medical treatment. Drive yourself only if there are no other options -- get a neighbor, friend, or family member to take you to a hospital if paramedics can't reach you.
  • Perform CPR if the person loses consciousness or stops breathing, or use a defibrillator if one is available.
  • Chew and swallow an aspirin, which helps to prevent blood clotting. Do not take or administer aspirin if you or the patient is allergic or has been instructed not to take it.
  • Take nitroglycerin if it has been prescribed.

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