A pink heart in front of a yellow background with heart beat monitor levels.
Coronary heart disease happens when your heart doesn't get enough oxygen-rich blood.

What Are Coronary Heart Disease Symptoms?

Coronary heart disease symptoms can start as early as childhood. Unbelievable, isn’t it? If you think back to your diet, exercise and health as a youngster, can you see some behaviors and choices that did you a disservice at your current age? These behaviors we learn early on set us up for how our heart fares in the long term.

What Is Coronary Heart Disease?

Coronary heart disease is a type of heart disease that develops when the heart doesn’t get enough oxygen-rich blood, which is called ischemia. Your coronary arteries provide the heart with blood, oxygen and nutrients; when major blood vessels within these structures become damaged, your heart is in trouble. Coronary heart disease typically develops over decades as plaque builds up inside the arteries. With plaque and inflammation taking up valuable space in the arteries, there isn’t enough room for proper blood flow.

There are three main types of coronary heart disease:

  • Obstructive coronary artery disease: plaque builds up over time to narrow or close the arteries.
  • Nonobstructive coronary artery disease: the artery becomes damaged or malfunctions.
  • Coronary microvascular disease: heart disease that occurs in the tiny arteries in the heart muscle.

Many people have both obstructive and nonobstructive forms of coronary heart disease.

Coronary Heart Disease Causes

This disease builds up over years, so you may not notice a problem until your heart suffers from a significant blockage or you have a heart attack. It’s thought that coronary artery disease begins with damage to the inner wall of a coronary artery. Once damage occurs in the inner wall, fatty deposits—cholesterol and other cellular waste products—start to collect at the site. Over time, this clump can block the artery, causing a heart attack.

There are a few contributing factors:

  • Poor diet
  • Smoking
  • High blood pressure
  • High cholesterol
  • Diabetes or insulin resistant
  • Not being active

Symptoms of Coronary Heart Disease

Symptoms of decreased blood flow may not be noticeable at first and symptoms are different for everyone. Some folks may not even be aware of any heart disease until they have a major episode. As your coronary arteries narrow, the reduced blood flow to the heart can cause:

  • Angina (chest pain that may feel like indigestion)
  • Shortness of breath, especially with activity
  • Dizziness or light-headedness
  • Cold sweats
  • Weakness
  • Sleep disturbances
  • Heart attack (when there is complete blockage of the arteries)

Women may exhibit less typical heart attack symptoms than men and instead may have:

  • Neck or jaw pain
  • Fatigue
  • Nausea
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Risk Factors of Coronary Heart Disease

  • Age. Your arteries have had more time to become getting damaged or narrowed.
  • Sex. Men are typically at a greater risk.
  • Family history. If other members of your immediate family have heart disease, your risk goes up.
  • Diet. Unhealthy diets high in saturated fat, trans fat, salt and sugar are not good for your heart.
  • Weight. Those who are overweight or obese put additional strain on their body.
  • High blood pressure. This can result in hardening and thickening of your arteries.
  • High blood cholesterol. High cholesterol can cause additional plaque to form within the arteries.
  • Activity levels. Lower or inactivity increases your risk.
  • Stress levels. Over time, stress may contribute to damage to the arteries and make other risk factors worse.
  • Diabetes. This condition is associated with coronary heart disease risk.
  • Smoking. This habit significantly increases your risk.

Treatment Options

Your doctor will take a look at the severity of your coronary heart disease, your symptoms and your overall health. Taking these factors into consideration, they’ll design a treatment plan for you which may involve:


Medication is meant to address the underlying causes of your heart disease or keep your risk factors under control. Medication that your doctor may prescribe include ACE inhibitors and beta blockers, calcium channel blockers, medication that helps control blood sugar, statin and non-statin therapies, nitrates, and more.


There are a few surgeries available depending on the cause of your coronary heart disease, your current health state and the prognosis of surgery. Some surgeries include:

  • Coronary artery bypass grafting (CABG): uses arteries from the chest wall and veins from the legs to bypass blocked arteries and improve blood flow to the heart.
  • Percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI): opens coronary arteries that have been narrowed or blocked by plaque. In most cases, a stent is implanted to prevent the artery from narrowing in the future.
  • Transmyocardial laser revascularization (TMLR): a laser makes small channels through the heart muscle into the left ventricle to allow oxygen-rich blood to flow through the tiny channels and deliver oxygen to the heart muscle.
  • Coronary endarterectomy: strips plaque from the inner wall of the coronary arteries and increases the blood supply to the heart (this may be part of treatment for patients undergoing CABG surgery).

Lifestyle Changes

You’re likely going to need to modify or completely overhaul your lifestyle for the sake of your heart. Many lifestyle changes following a coronary heart disease episode mirror expert advice on how to prevent coronary heart disease in the first place.

How Can It be Prevented?

The easiest way to prevent coronary heart disease is to take care of yourself and make heart-healthy choices. Switch to a low-fat, low-salt diet with plenty of fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Move your body and get in some activity every day (your doctor will advise what’s safe following a coronary heart disease diagnosis), which will contribute to overall health as well as help you maintain a healthy weight. Touch base with your doctor to get your high blood pressure, high cholesterol, diabetes and stress under control. You’ll also want to let go of unhealthy habits, such as smoking.


Coronary heart disease starts early, but it doesn’t have to start at all. Set an example for the young people in your life. Your influence of a heart-smart lifestyle could make the difference in whether or not they get coronary artery disease in their later years.