Important information about the difference between a heart attack and a stroke.


Heart attacks and strokes are life-threatening medical emergencies. They may share some similarities, but they are very different medical conditions. It is important to understand the signs and symptoms of each to ensure immediate treatment.

What is a heart attack?

[Man clutching chest]
When the blood flow to the coronary artery is reduced or blocked, a heart attack occurs.

A heart attack occurs when blood flow to a coronary artery is reduced or blocked. This can stop the flow of blood to the heart.

Coronary arteries that supply the heart muscle with blood flow can become narrow due to the buildup of substances including fat andcholesterol. These substances are referred to as plaque.

Plaque buildup typically occurs over several years. If a plaque in a heart artery breaks, a blood clot forms around it. This blood clot formation can obstruct the normal blood flow to the heart muscle.

As a result, part of the heart muscle does not get enough oxygen. This part begins to die if the blockage is not treated quickly. Scar tissue begins to replace healthy heart tissue. Damage or death to the heart muscle due to a lack of oxygen and nutrients results in a heart attack.

According to the American Heart Association, someone in the United States has a heart attack every 43 seconds.

What is a stroke?

A stroke occurs when the supply of blood to the brain is interrupted, reduced, or blocked. This deprives the brain tissue of oxygen and other essential nutrients.

A blood vessel that carries oxygen and nutrients to the brain either bursts or is blocked by a clot.

Any brain cells that are deprived of oxygen begin to die. This sudden death can happen within minutes. Transient ischemic attack (TIA) is commonly referred to as a “mini-stroke” and is caused by a temporary clot.

Symptoms of heart attacks and strokes

The most common symptoms of a heart attack include:

  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Upper body discomfort
  • Shortness of breath
  • Breaking out in a cold sweat
  • Tiredness
  • Nausea
  • Light-headedness or dizziness

Symptoms can vary from person to person. Some people have no symptoms or very mild symptoms and experience what is called a “silent heart attack.”

Stroke symptoms depend on the part of the brain that is damaged. Patients can have a number of problems including memory, speech, muscle control, and other functions.

[x-ray style image of brain]
A stroke occurs when the blood supply to the brain is reduced or blocked.

Common stroke symptoms include:

  • Sudden numbness or weakness in the face, arm, or leg, which tends to occur more on one side of the body
  • Confusion or difficulty speaking or understanding speech
  • Sudden difficulty walking, dizziness, or loss of balance or coordination
  • Trouble seeing in one or both eyes
  • Sudden severe headache, which may also include vomiting, dizziness, or altered consciousness

Common risk factors

Factors linked with a higher risk of heart attack or stroke that cannot be helped include age, family history of stroke or heart attack, race, and gender. People who have had a prior stroke, mini-strokes, or a heart attack are at an increased risk of having another one.

Other risk factors include:

  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Overweight and obesity
  • Diabetes
  • Poor diet
  • Lack of physical activity
  • Drug and alcohol abuse

Similar medical conditions and symptoms

It is important to diagnose a heart attack or stroke correctly. There are other medical conditions that have similar symptoms and can affect the heart. These conditions include:

  • Angina – a symptom of coronary artery disease that causes chest pain or discomfort due to the heart muscle not getting enough blood. Angina may feel like pressure or a squeezing pain in the chest area.
  • Aortic aneurysm and dissection – an enlargement that can burst or tear in the aorta, the main artery in the body.
  • Arrhythmias – irregular or unusually fast or slow heartbeats. These can develop into more serious medical conditions such asatrial fibrillation, which can cause a stroke.
  • Blood clot in the lung

Severe heartburn or acid reflux can also feel like a heart attack by causing severe chest pain. Panic disorders, anxiety,depression, and emotional stress can also cause chest pain in some people.

It is important to seek emergency medical treatment for chest pain to be sure it is not a heart attack or another serious medical condition.

Though there are some tell-tale signs of strokes, there are some other conditions such as migraines, headaches, and seizures that can present similar symptoms. Other medical conditions that can mimic strokes include:

  • Brain tumors – a mass present on the brain tissue. People can experience headaches, weakness, loss of feeling in the arms or legs, problems walking, and changes in vision and speech.
  • Bell’s palsy – a condition caused by damage to a nerve outside the brain. This can lead to paralysis or weakening of muscles on one side of the face and facial drooping.
  • Multiple sclerosis – a disease caused by inflammatory injury to the brain.

If a person has stroke-like symptoms, it is important to call for help immediately. The sooner treatment can begin, the lower the risk of possible brain damage.

Treatment for heart attack and stroke

If a heart attack or stroke is suspected, medical treatment should be started right away, often before the diagnosis has been confirmed.

Doctors often give aspirin to stroke and heart attack patients to help prevent further blood clotting. Many people who are at risk of a heart attack or stroke or who have had one in the past take aspirin on a daily basis.

Other treatments for a heart attack include:

  • Clot-busting medication
  • Percutaneous coronary intervention
  • Nitroglycerin
  • Oxygen therapy
  • Treatment for chest pain
  • Medical procedures such as surgery
  • Heart-healthy lifestyle changes such as diet or exercise
  • Cardiac rehabilitation

The type of treatment for a stroke depends on the type of stroke a person has suffered. Common treatments include:

  • Clot-busting drugs and other medicines
  • Tissue plasminogen activator (TPA)
  • Mechanical clot removal
  • Surgery

The overall impact and treatment for the stroke depend on the area of the brain involved and the amount of tissue damage. A doctor will decide if this is necessary and if any additional treatment is needed.


There are things that people can do to try and reduce their risk of having a heart attack or stroke. As some risk factors cannot be controlled, it is important to understand how to lower the risk.

[Healthy food and exercise equipment]
A well-balanced diet and exercise are a vital part of reducing heart attack and stroke risk.

Tips for reducing the risk of heart attack or stroke include:

  • Not smoking
  • Drinking alcohol in moderation
  • Managing blood sugar levels
  • Keeping stress levels low
  • Managing blood pressure and cholesterol
  • Avoiding drugs such as cocaine and methamphetamines

Leading a healthy lifestyle with a balanced diet and exercise is another vital part of reducing the risk. People who have had previous heart or stroke problems may also want to include a dose of aspirin into their daily regimen.

The quicker a heart attack or stroke is recognized, the better the chances of survival and a full recovery.