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Differences Between Cardiac and Respiratory Arrest

Hand Full of Pills and Fall

What would you do if your sibling or spouse suddenly held their chest and started gasping for breath? How would you know if the issue is with the airway or the clenched heart? Every fatal illness or condition in the body shows itself as either excessive loss of blood, difficulty in breathing, or a stopped heart. At the same time, a lay responder may not understand the root cause. A healthcare specialist can identify the difference between respiratory and cardiac issues.

While respiratory arrest concerns the obstruction of your lungs or airways, cardiac arrest refers to an issue with the heart. Cardiac and respiratory arrest may sound similar, but they are distinct conditions that require immediate intervention. However, they affect different systems and have unique treatment approaches. Read on to unravel the respiratory arrest vs cardiac arrest debate and deep dive into their differences.

Respiratory arrest definition

Respiratory arrest refers to the stoppage of air exchange in the body. You can also consider it as involuntary cessation of breathing for long durations. It occurs when the respiratory system, including your lungs, fails to work, due to choking or other reasons. Every vital organ in your body, including the heart, starts to die. Close to 9750 people died from acute respiratory distress syndrome in 2013 in the US. Uninterrupted respiratory distress results could result in cardiac arrest, and you must identify it sooner than later.

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Understanding cardiac arrest?

The human heart is a large muscle that houses a complicated blood channelization system. An active blood supply and electric impulses fuels the heart muscles to work seamlessly. However, several reasons could cause the heart to cease, stopping blood flow in the body. These include respiratory arrest or irregular nerve conduction and eight others. Cardiac arrest refers to this situation of the heart.

Difference between respiratory and cardiac arrest

Respiratory ArrestCardiac Arrest
DefinitionThe cessation of breathingThe sudden loss of heart function
CauseAirway obstruction, drug overdose, drowning, etc.Heart attack, arrhythmia, trauma, etc.
Signs and SymptomsAbsence of breathing, no chest movementSudden collapse, unconsciousness, no pulse
OutcomeIf left untreated, can lead to cardiac arrestIf left untreated, can lead to brain damage
TreatmentClear airway, perform rescue breathingPerform CPR, defibrillation if available
First AidCall emergency services, begin rescue breathingCall emergency services, begin CPR immediately

What to do for respiratory and cardiac arrest?

When faced with respiratory or cardiac arrest, prompt action is crucial. Here are the recommended steps for each:

Respiratory arrest:

  1. Call emergency services immediately.
  2. Clear the person’s airway of any obstructions.
  3. Administer rescue breaths by performing rescue breathing.
  4. Continue providing rescue breaths until medical professionals arrive.
  5. If the victim becomes unconscious, start chest compressions as well.

Cardiac arrest:

  1. Call emergency services right away.
  2. Begin cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) by performing chest compressions.
  3. If available, retrieve an Automated External Defibrillator (AED) and follow the instructions.
  4. Continue CPR until the medical team arrives or the person shows signs of recovery.

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Can cardiac arrest cause lung damage?

Yes, as the blood flow to the organs ceases, it could lead to irreparable damage to the lung tissue. This damage primarily results from the collection of unfiltered carbon dioxide and a diminished supply of fresh oxygen.

Can you breathe without a pulse?

No, the absence of a pulse indicates no blood flow. In such a situation, the lungs would stop working as well. However, you may notice a person suffering from cardiac arrest gasping for breath or making deep breathing sounds. Healthcare experts term this as agonal breathing. You must not confuse this with normal breathing; instead, promptly administer CPR to the victim.

Pulse but no breathing: what to do?

You must deliver rescue breaths immediately if a victim has a faint pulse but no signs of breathing. Check their airway for blockage and then use a bag in a mask, if available. However, you must prepare to deliver chest compression if the pulse stops as well.

Pulmonary arrest definition

Pulmonary or cardiopulmonary or respiratory arrest refers to the sudden cessation of normal breathing and blood circulation. It is an emergency medical condition where the lungs and the heart stop working.


Now that you clearly understand respiratory and cardiac arrest, be sure to differentiate between the two. While you will need to call 911 and ask around for help, the next steps depend on your identification of the issue. Take a recognized course to understand the difference between respiratory and cardiac arrest today.