What is the difference between heart attack and heart failure?

Health Topic

Most people use the terms heart attack and heart failure interchangeably, but they are two different conditions that are equally fatal. While the symptoms and the causes might seem similar, they have different consequences and manifest in different ways. To understand the conditions better, we spoke to Dr Shirish Hiremath, president of Cardiological Society of India (CSI), who helps us to decode these two conditions.

What is a heart attack?
A heart attack is a sudden, unexpected event resulting due to blockage in one of the main arteries supplying blood to the heart. In the absence of blood and oxygen, the heart muscles die slowly which could be life-threatening. Here are eight warning signs of heart attack that you should know.

What is a heart failure?
Unlike a heart attack, heart failure is not sudden but a chronic condition in which the heart muscles become weak and fail to pump enough blood to meet the body’s requirements. The heart muscles responsible for the pumping action weaken or stiffen over time, failing to efficiently pump, leading to slower movement of the blood (and thus the oxygen and nutrients) through the heart and body.  Here are 10 ways to keep your heart healthy.

Why is a heart failure dangerous than a heart attack?
The consequences of a heart failure are not restricted to the heart but affect the entire body. As the heart muscles become weaker and fail to pump blood effectively it creates a pressure on the heart, which affects other crucial organs and their functions. Like, the kidneys respond by retaining fluid and salt in the body. This leads to fluid build up in the arms, legs, ankles, feet, lungs, or other organs and the entire body becomes congested. That is why this condition is also known as congestive heart failure. Heart failure can involve the left side (left ventricle), right side (right ventricle) or both sides of your heart. It begins with the left side, specifically the left ventricle, which is the heart’s main pumping chamber. Here are 11 healthy drinks to keep your heart healthy.

What causes a heart failure?
There is no single reason that can lead to heart failure. A culmination of certain conditions and lifestyle habits fails your heart. The common reasons for a heart failure are blocked arteries, cardiomyopathy (damage to the heart muscles from infections or alcohol or drug abuse), or conditions that make the heart overwork like diabetes, high blood pressure, obesity, kidney disease or thyroid malfunction. In fact, heart failure could also happen right after a heart attack. Here are six simple lifestyle changes to control high blood pressure.

What causes a heart attack?
A heart attack happens when a plaque breaks free from the arteries and forms a clot thus stopping blood flow to the heart. Sometimes even if your arteries are free of plaque build-up a spasm in the coronary artery (the main artery that supplies blood to the heart) can trigger a heart attack or it can happen if there is a tear in the wall of the artery, which is very rare.

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

The main symptoms of a heart failure are:
  • Congested lungs leading to shortness of breath
  • Water retention showing up as swollen ankles, legs or abdomen
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Increased night time urination
  • Reduced ability to exercise and excessive fatigue
  • Dizziness or confusion
  • Irregular heartbeats, as the heart beats faster to pump enough blood to the body
All these symptoms indicate a weak heart and are signals to visit a doctor. But of course, the symptoms of this condition are different at each stage and need to be identified and treated accordingly. However, rush to your doctor if you notice any of these symptoms: chest pain, fainting or severe weakness, rapid or irregular heartbeat associated with shortness of breath and coughing up pink, foamy mucus.

What are the symptoms of heart attack?
The most common symptoms of heart attack are:
  • Discomfort or pain arising at the centre of the chest (also known as angina)
  • The feeling of suffocation with chest pain
  • Difficulty in breathing
Other signs and symptoms of a heart attack include:
  • Anxiety
  • Cough
  • Fainting
  • Light-headedness, dizziness
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Palpitations (feeling like your heart is beating too fast or irregularly)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating, which may be very heavy
How is a heart failure treated?
The diagnosis of heart failure is carried out through a careful analysis of a person’s medical history, physical examination, and some laboratory tests. An echocardiogram is the most common test to diagnose heart failure. Other tests that can help diagnose it are cardiac stress tests, heart catheterisation and MRI of the heart. Sometimes even the Ejection Fraction (EF) is used to measure how well your heart pumps with each beat.
The treatment of heart failure involves: lifestyle modifications, medications like beta blockers, ACE inhibitors, treatment of the causative causes (like high BP or diabetes), and sometimes some surgery options for coronary artery repair and valve repair or replacement (as appropriate) are often prescribed. Not all conditions that lead to heart failure can be reversed, but treatments can improve the signs and symptoms of heart failure and help one live longer and improve the quality of life extensively.

How is a heart attack treated?
A heart attack might need you to be hospitalised immediately. To treat it promptly, blood thinners are given to prevent further blood clots and a treatment modality is drawn depending on the severity of the condition. The damage done due to heart failure is usually irreversible, but many people recover well from an attack with help of timely treatment and medication.
Various procedures help to open a blocked artery like the use of stents or angioplasty. Sometimes a bypass grafting is done where the surgeon takes healthy blood vessels and attaches it to the damaged blood vessels to create a detour for the blood. In severe cases, a heart transplant might be suggested. After the treatment, usually lifestyle modifications and medications are prescribed to keep the heart healthy and improve quality of life.

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Disclaimer: The information provided here should not be used during any medical emergency or for the diagnosis or treatment of any medical condition. The information is provided solely for educational purpose and should not be considered a substitute for medical advice.