What is heart disease?

Heart disease is a term that describes a group of medical conditions involving disease of the heart or blood vessels. The Mayo Clinic identifies the following conditions as heart disease:

  • coronary artery disease
  • heart failure
  • arrhythmia, such as atrial fibrillation
  • congenital heart defects

Other diseases of the heart include:

Chest pain from the heart muscle because it doesn’t have adequate oxygen and nutrient-rich arterial blood flow, also called angina, is a common symptom of heart disease. Angina causes you to feel discomfort in your chest. Some people experience tightness or a squeezing sensation around their breastbone. The pain may radiate to the neck, down the shoulder and arms or upper abdomen, or into the upper back.

If you’re very tired or have difficulty catching your breath after minor exertion, you may have symptoms of heart disease. These symptoms typically ease with rest.

Women often experience different symptoms than men. For example, women may have:

  • nausea
  • vomiting
  • back pain
  • jaw pain
  • cold sweats
  • paleness
  • dizziness
  • shortness of breath
  • lightheadedness
  • fainting episodes

Women may not recognize the symptoms of heart disease. This is because their symptoms may also occur with other illnesses. Women also tend to have other risk factors, such as depression, stress, and menopause.


The symptoms of heart disease depend on the type of heart problem you have.

Atherosclerosis is a hardening and stiffening of blood vessels due to blood vessel injury from accumulation of fatty plaque deposits. The symptoms can include chest pain and shortness of breath in coronary artery atherosclerosis.

Additional symptoms include:

  • unusual pain
  • coldness
  • numbness
  • weakness in your arms and legs

These symptoms are due to a lack of arterial blood supply to the extremities.


Arrhythmias, also known as abnormal heart rhythms, have different symptoms. An arrhythmia may be accompanied by a heartbeat that’s too fast or too slow. It can make you feel like your heart has a flutter, a racing heartbeat, or an unusually slow pulse.

An arrhythmia also may cause:

  • chest pain
  • lightheadedness
  • dizziness
  • fainting spells

Congenital heart defects

Congenital heart defects are heart problems that typically occur during fetal development and are present at birth. Doctors usually diagnose them at birth or in early childhood. Sometimes people don’t receive a diagnosis until adulthood, depending on the severity of symptoms. These include:

  • shortness of breath
  • blue-tinged skin
  • tiring easily
  • swelling of the extremities

In general, the more severe the congenital defect, the earlier it’s apparent.


Cardiomyopathy occurs when the heart muscle becomes diseased. It has several possible symptoms that may be difficult to immediately link to heart disease. These symptoms include:

  • shortness of breath
  • swollen lower legs, ankles, or feet
  • bloating
  • fatigue
  • a pounding or fluttering pulse

Heart infections

The three main types of heart infection are infectious pericarditis, myocarditis, and endocarditis. They affect different parts of the heart and may have slightly different symptoms.

The symptoms of a heart infection may be similar to those of cardiomyopathy but may also include a fever, chest pain, a skin rash, or a cough that won’t go away.

Common risk factors for heart disease include:

  • being overweight
  • being inactive
  • smoking tobacco
  • eating a high-fat, high-sodium, and high-carbohydrate diet
  • having diabetes mellitus
  • having high blood pressure
  • having high cholesterol
  • having a family history of heart disease

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that about 47 percent of Americans have one or more of the three “key” risk factors for heart disease, which are high blood pressure, high cholesterol, and tobacco smoking.

Heed your doctor’s advice if they’ve warned you that you’re at risk for heart disease.

It can be difficult to interpret the symptoms on your own. Swollen lower extremities, fatigue, irregular heart rhythm, and other symptoms can indicate any number of heart issues or other illnesses.

It’s wise to develop a relationship with a doctor who’s familiar with your family and personal history. A doctor who knows your habits and lifestyle will be better able to diagnose your illness.

See your doctor before you experience the symptoms of heart disease. Get regular checkups, and listen to your doctor’s advice for living a healthier lifestyle.

In addition to seeing a doctor regularly, you should also make positive changes to your lifestyle. This includes the following:

  • Stop smoking tobacco.
  • Be physically active.
  • Maintain a healthy weight.
  • Manage your stress.