What’s the Difference Between Heart Failure and a Heart Attack?


Both heart failure and a heart attack are forms of heart disease. While they share some similarities, many differences exist between them as well. One of the biggest differences is that heart disease happens gradually over time while a heart attack occurs suddenly and is an emergency.

Heart failure occurs when the muscles of the heart become weak and have difficulty pumping enough blood to nourish your body’s many cells. It is a chronic condition, which means that it doesn’t go away and typically gets worse over time. However, you can manage heart disease with medication and lifestyle changes. Both can improve the quality of your life as well as your longevity.

A heart attack can come on with no previous warning.

Common Symptoms of a Heart Attack Include:

  • Intense pressure, pain, and/or tightness in the chest
  • Nausea
  • Shortness of breath
  • Sweating
  • Pain in the back, chest, jaw, and other areas of your upper body that lasts longer than a few minutes and might go away and return

Having a heart attack increases your chances of developing heart disease even when you had no previous indication of heart issues. The symptoms of heart failure may be extreme and come on immediately following a heart attack. They typically resolve promptly with medication and other treatment from a cardiologist.

Coronary Artery Disease Linked to Both Conditions

Heart disease and heart attack both share coronary artery disease as a primary cause. This occurs over time when your arteries narrow and harden due to deposits of plaque from fat and other types of substances found in food. This is one reason why a healthy diet low in fat and cholesterol is so important.

Causes of Heart Attack and Heart Failure

A heart attack can occur when a piece of plaque breaks off and causes the blood surrounding your heart to clot. This makes it impossible for blood to flow in and out of your heart muscles as usual. You could also have a heart attack due to a spasm occurring in your coronary artery. This is true even if you don’t have a problem with hardening of the arteries. A third possible cause of a heart attack is a tear in the coronary artery’s wall. However, this is not common.

When your heart must pump blood through a blocked, narrow space, it will become weaker over time. You will eventually experience heart failure because your heart isn’t receiving all the blood that it needs. While this is the most typical cause of heart failure, several others exist as well.

Common Causes:

  • Alcohol abuse
  • Cardiomyopathy, which is a problem with how the heart muscle functions
  • Chemotherapy
  • Congenital heart defects
  • Heart valve disease
  • Infections
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Lung disease
  • Thyroid disease

Symptoms of Heart Attack and Heart Disease

We listed the symptoms of heart attack above, but it’s important to note that they can vary considerably from one person to the next and between men and women. Chest pain is the most common symptom, but not everyone experiences this. When women have a heart attack, it’s more common for them to become extremely fatigued and lightheaded as well as experience nausea, vomiting, and a cold sweat.

If you think you are developing heart disease and would like to start treatment, please visit your primary care provider who will refer you to the UPMC Western Maryland Cardiology Department. However, if you are exhibiting any signs of a heart attack, such as the ones listed below, please visit the Emergency Department immediately:

  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Difficulty catching your breath, especially when you lie down
  • Fatigue
  • Irregular or fast heartbeat
  • Mental confusion
  • Swelling around the ankles, legs, or stomach
  • Weight gain from fluid retention

Treatment Approaches

As mentioned above, a heart attack is a medical emergency requiring prompt treatment. If you recognize any of the symptoms we listed, call 9-1-1 without delay. The paramedics will provide you with aspirin to thin your blood and prevent additional clotting if you are indeed having a heart attack. You will likely receive nitroglycerin to improve your blood flow as well.

You may need surgery once you arrive at the hospital by ambulance. Coronary artery bypass grafting and percutaneous coronary intervention are both common procedures immediately after a heart attack. Even if you don’t require surgery, your doctor will likely prescribe medications to lower cholesterol and blood pressure. Your care team at WMHS will also work with you to help you change your diet and begin an exercise routine.

Treatment of heart disease often includes the same medications and recommended lifestyle changes. Additionally, your doctor may prescribe a diuretic to help your body eliminate excess water. This helps to reduce shortness of breath and swelling. In addition to losing weight, quitting smoking, and getting enough exercise, you also need to watch your salt intake to prevent your heart failure from worsening.

No matter what type of heart condition you have, the cardiology team at UPMC Western Maryland is here to help you recover from an acute event or manage a chronic condition so you can live your best possible life.

Please note, the information provided throughout this site is not intended or implied to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. All content, including text, graphics, images, and video, on or available through this website is for general information purposes only. If you are experiencing relating symptoms, please visit your doctor or call 9-1-1 in an emergency.