Differences Between Respiratory Arrest and Cardiac Arrest

In the medical world, the term arrest is used often to describe a condition where something that should be happening has stopped.

Though doctors use these terms, they can be confusing for patients or laypeople. Arrest is straightforward enough, but is there a difference between respiratory and cardiac arrest? It is even more complicated because sometimes instead of respiratory, the term pulmonary is used, especially when referring to the use of cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) to treat cardiopulmonary arrest.

So, what is the difference between respiratory and cardiac arrest? The difference is a pulse.

During respiratory (or pulmonary) arrest, breathing stops. During cardiac arrest, blood flow stops. Technically, cardiac arrest means that the heart has stopped beating, but it's really assessed by the fact that blood flow is no longer detectable, even if the heart might still be trying to beat.

Woman performing CPR on a man
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How to Tell the Difference

In both respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest, the patient will be unconscious and not be breathing. However, respiratory arrest patients still have a beating heart that is pushing blood around the body. Cardiac arrest patients do not.

Without fancy equipment, the only way to tell if the blood has stopped flowing is to feel for a pulse. The way to feel that beating heart is through the blood pulsing through the arteries. It's not a perfect procedure and there is a possibility of getting it wrong, even if you're a trained healthcare provider. Indeed, when the patient doesn't have a pulse, rescuers take longer trying to find it rather than treating the patient.

As far as CPR is concerned, you should treat respiratory arrest and cardiac arrest exactly the same way: call 911 and push on the chest.

Respiratory Arrest Leads to Cardiac Arrest

These two conditions are absolutely linked. Respiratory arrest will always lead to cardiac arrest if nothing is done to treat it. When a patient has respiratory arrest, two things happen:

  1. Carbon dioxide is not removed properly from the bloodstream, leading to a buildup of carbonic acid. The excess acid can cause problems in the brain and in the heart.
  2. Eventually (much slower than the buildup of carbon dioxide), oxygen levels in the bloodstream will diminish. The lack of oxygen will also lead to problems in the brain and heart.

Without treatment, respiratory arrest always leads to cardiac arrest. Sometimes, however, it can take several minutes.

Cardiac Arrest Always Includes Respiratory Arrest

Cardiac arrest means the heart is no longer moving blood through the body. It might be beating or not, but either way, there isn't any blood pulsing around.Without blood, the brain cannot survive. A constant supply of fresh blood is required to keep the brain alive and functioning properly. When blood supply stops, the brain shuts down, including its respiratory center. So, when the heart stops, so does breathing, usually within a minute or less.

2 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Patel K, Hipskind JE. Cardiac arrest. In: StatPearls. Updated January 21, 2020.

  2. Johnson NJ, Caldwell E, Carlbom DJ, et al. The acute respiratory distress syndrome after out-of-hospital cardiac arrest: Incidence, risk factors, and outcomes. Resuscitation. 2019;135:37-44. doi:10.1016/j.resuscitation.2019.01.009

Additional Reading
  • Eberle B, Dick WF, Schneider T, Wisser G, Doetsch S, Tzanova I. Checking the carotid pulse check: diagnostic accuracy of first responders in patients with and without a pulse. Resuscitation. 1996 Dec;33(2):107-16.

By Rod Brouhard, EMT-P
Rod Brouhard is an emergency medical technician paramedic (EMT-P), journalist, educator, and advocate for emergency medical service providers and patients.