Common signs of heart disease to look out for

Medically reviewed by Neka Miller, PhD on December 14, 2020. To give you technically accurate, evidence-based information, content published on the Everlywell blog is reviewed by credentialed professionals with expertise in medical and bioscience fields.


Heart disease is a group of heart conditions that negatively affect the structure or function of the heart and blood vessels. Recognizing the presence of heart disease can be difficult because there are often no early, noticeable symptoms.

However, heart disease can lead to serious heart problems (including sudden cardiac arrest), so it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the different warning signs it's associated with. Keep reading to discover the signs of heart disease to look out for—and be sure to speak with your healthcare provider if you believe you may have heart disease or are at risk.


Take the at-home Heart Health Test to measure indicators of cholesterol, blood sugar, and inflammation—all of which play key roles in heart disease risk.


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Possible warning signs of heart disease

Because of the vital role the heart plays in overall health and well-being, be sure to speak with your healthcare provider as soon as possible if you believe you may have any of the heart disease warning signs below.

High blood sugar

Having high blood sugar over the long-term is a major risk factor for the development of the most common type of heart disease, coronary artery disease (also called coronary heart disease). That’s because consistently elevated blood sugar levels can eventually harm blood vessels as well as the system of nerves that help regulate heart function. This is one reason why diabetes is associated with an increased risk of heart disease.

High blood pressure

High blood pressure, or hypertension, means that blood flows through the arteries with more force, which can hurt artery walls over time. Studies show that high blood pressure is a key risk factor for coronary heart disease, stroke, heart valve diseases, and aortic syndromes (the aorta is the body’s largest artery).

High LDL cholesterol

High levels of LDL cholesterol (also known as “bad cholesterol”) can directly contribute to the development of heart disease by promoting plaque buildup on artery walls. This, in turn, can cause the arteries to harden (atherosclerosis) and restrict the easy flow of blood—potentially leading to heart disease, heart attack, or stroke.

To check in on your cholesterol levels from the convenience of home, try the Everlywell at-home Cholesterol & Lipids Test.

Physical symptoms of heart disease

If you have heart disease, you may experience any of the following physical symptoms. Do note that symptoms of cardiovascular disease can manifest differently from one person to the next, shaped by factors like one’s biological sex.

Chest pain or chest discomfort (angina)

Chest pain or chest discomfort that occurs when blood does not flow freely through the blood vessels of the heart is called angina. The discomfort in your chest may feel like a squeezing or burning sensation. You may also feel tightness going into other parts of your upper body, such as your arms, neck, jaw, and back. Chest pain can happen during physical activity, such as lifting heavy objects or climbing stairs.

Angina is one of the most common heart problem symptoms and is the most common heart attack warning sign in men as well as women. Other common heart attack symptoms include shortness of breath, nausea, vomiting, jaw pain, and back pain.

Seek emergency medical treatment immediately by calling 9-1-1 if you or someone you know is experiencing heart attack warning signs.

Shortness of breath

One of the possible symptoms of heart disease is shortness of breath. This can happen both when you’re resting and while you’re engaged in activity. When related to heart health, shortness of breath can be either acute or chronic—also referred to as acute and chronic dyspnea:

  • Acute shortness of breath is a heart attack warning sign, so call 9-1-1 to seek emergency medical treatment right away if you or someone you know is experiencing sudden shortness of breath.
  • Chronic shortness of breath is shortness of breath that persists for longer than a month. It is a possible outcome of coronary heart disease, arrhythmia, and other heart-related conditions.

Swelling in the lower extremities

If blood vessels are narrowed in the ankles, legs, and feet, it can cause an accumulation of fluid in tissues that cause swelling.

Coughing

Some people with heart problems complain of a persistent cough. This is caused by fluid buildup in the lungs, known as pulmonary edema.

Fatigue

Fatigue caused by heart disease can make you feel suddenly weak and/or exhausted. You may feel so tired that you are unable to do normal daily activities.

Irregular heartbeat or heart palpitations

An irregular heartbeat can make you feel like your heart is racing or throbbing. You may have this heart disease symptom if your heart is unable to pump blood properly and attempts to make up for it by beating faster.

Erectile dysfunction

Research has found a strong link between erectile dysfunction and heart disease. Approximately 50-60% of erectile dysfunction in men over the age of 60 is caused by atherosclerosis, the leading cause of coronary heart disease. Additionally, conditions that affect the blood vessels (collectively called vascular diseases) also impede erectile function. High blood cholesterol and high blood pressure are additional risk factors for erectile dysfunction. These heart or blood vessel conditions restrict blood flow to the genitals, causing erectile dysfunction.

What are the major signs of different heart disease types?

Here’s a list of possible heart disease signs sorted by different types of heart disease.

Coronary heart disease signs

  • Chest pain or angina
  • Shortness of breath
  • Unusual pain, numbness, or weakness in your arms or legs
  • Pain that goes into your neck, jaw, throat, back, and abdomen

Congestive heart failure signs

  • Shortness of breath
  • Irregular heartbeat
  • Fatigue
  • Swelling (edema) in feet and ankles
  • A persistent cough that may have blood-tinged phlegm
  • Abdominal swelling
  • Weight gain from fluid retention
  • Chest pain, if a heart attack is involved

Heart valve disease signs

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fatigue
  • Swollen ankles or feet
  • Episodes of fainting
  • Irregular heartbeat

Heart arrhythmia signs

  • Tachycardia (rapid or racing heartbeat)
  • Bradycardia (slow heartbeat)
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting episodes
  • Feeling a fluttering in your chest

Heart infection (endocarditis) signs

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Heart rhythm changes
  • Persistent cough
  • Skin rashes
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Leg or abdomen swelling

Testing for heart disease risk factors

Take the Everlywell Heart Health Test kit to easily discover your levels of cholesterol, blood sugar (via an HbA1c measurement), and inflammation (via hs-CRP testing). The test results—which you can securely access online—can help tell you whether you have key risk factors for heart disease.


What causes heart disease?


References

1. Diabetes and Your Heart. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

2. Fuchs FD, Whelton PK. High Blood Pressure and Cardiovascular Disease. Hypertension. 2020;75(2):285-292. doi:10.1161/HYPERTENSIONAHA.119.14240

3. Heart disease. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

4. Warning Signs of a Heart Attack. American Heart Association. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

5. Berliner D, Schneider N, Welte T, Bauersachs J. The Differential Diagnosis of Dyspnea. Dtsch Arztebl Int. 2016;113(49):834-845. doi:10.3238/arztebl.2016.0834

6. Wahls SA. Causes and evaluation of chronic dyspnea. Am Fam Physician. 2012;86(2):173-182.

7. Heart Disease & Erectile Dysfunction. Cleveland Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

8. Heart failure. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

9. Heart valve disease. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

10. Heart arrhythmia. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

11. Rheumatic fever. Mayo Clinic. URL. Accessed December 14, 2020.

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