A postcoital heart attack is a heart attack that happens after sexual activity, but don’t let that put you off sex. Here’s what we know so far and when to contact a doctor.

Postcoital heart attacks are extremely rare and the cause of less than 1% of all heart attacks. People assigned male at birth represent the majority of the small number of people who have a heart attack after sex.

A postcoital heart attack causes the same symptoms as a heart attack that happens any other time, but some of the symptoms may be harder to spot during or immediately after sex, such as:

  • breathlessness
  • a fast heart rate
  • sweating

Don’t hesitate to call your local emergency services if you or your partner experiences any of the symptoms of a heart attack.

Symptoms of a heart attack include:

Before getting into the specific causes of a postcoital heart attack, it’s important to understand how a heart attack happens.

A heart attack happens when part of the heart doesn’t get enough blood because the arteries that supply the heart with blood become narrow from a buildup of plaque. A heart attack can also occur when a coronary artery temporarily contracts or goes into spasm and restricts blood flow.

Spontaneous coronary artery dissection, though rare, is another cause of heart attack. It occurs when the wall of a coronary artery spontaneously tears, and blood intended for the heart muscle moves into the layers of the blood vessel wall.

Cardiac arrest is not the same as a heart attack, but people often confuse the two. Sudden cardiac arrest isn’t a circulation problem. It’s an electrical problem and happens when the heart suddenly stops beating because of irregular heart rhythms called arrhythmias.

The type of arrhythmia that most often causes cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation, which happens when the lower chambers of the heart beat erratically and stop pumping blood. A heart attack can cause ventricular fibrillation.

Sudden cardiac arrest from sex is also extremely rare.

Sex can trigger a heart attack the same way that physical activity and emotional excitement or stress can. Just like vigorous exercise and emotional stress, coitus can cause a quick and significant increase in your heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, making your heart work harder.

Recreational stimulant drugs, like cocaine, can also do this.

Having a heart condition increases the risk of a heart attack after sex and otherwise. Types of heart disease include:

The following raise your risk of heart disease and heart attack:

Diagnosing a heart attack involves a combination of your medical history, including what you were doing when your symptoms started, as well as medical tests.

Several tests can help diagnose a heart attack:

  • electrocardiogram, also called an EKG or ECG, which is usually the first test doctors use to detect a recent or ongoing heart attack
  • blood tests, which can help doctors check your blood for proteins, such as troponin, released into the bloodstream during a heart attack
  • chest X-rays, which can help doctors check for signs of heart attack complications and other possible causes of your symptoms
  • echocardiogram, which is an ultrasound of the heart that can show heart damage and help doctors check heart function

Other tests that doctors may use following a heart attack include:

Emergency medical personnel may start treatment even before confirming you’re having a heart attack.

Early treatment may help remove the plaque or clot that prevents blood from getting to your heart. It can improve your heart function, limit or prevent heart damage, and save your life.

Emergency treatment includes:

  • aspirin to prevent more clots
  • nitroglycerin or nitrates, which can dilate the blood vessels to improve blood flow and help your heart pump blood
  • thrombolytic drugs, known as clot busters, can help dissolve blood clots blocking your arteries

In the event that a person’s heart suddenly stops, doctors may use CPR or a defibrillator to try to make it beat again. Defibrillators can also help doctors correct an arrhythmia and try to prevent cardiac arrest.

In some cases, you may need one of the following medical procedures to help restore blood flow to your heart:

  • percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), which involves a doctor guiding a catheter through your blood vessels to open narrow blood vessels
  • a stent, which involves doctors placing one during PCI to keep a blood vessel open to improve blood flow
  • coronary artery bypass grafting, which is a surgical procedure that doctors can perform as emergency treatment to fix blocked or narrowed arteries in a severe heart attack

The outcome following a postcoital heart attack depends on the severity of the heart attack and the extent of damage to the heart.

Death from a postcoital heart attack, even in people with CAD and other risk factors, is low.

Getting prompt medical treatment can greatly improve the outcome for someone who’s had a postcoital heart attack.

Not every risk factor is in your control, like genetics, but there are things you can do to reduce your risk of a heart attack — postcoital and otherwise:

Postcoital heart attack is possible, but it’s rare. If you’re concerned about your heart health and risk, consult a healthcare professional.

If you or a partner experiences symptoms of a heart attack during sexual activity, don’t hesitate to call your local emergency services.

Adrienne Santos-Longhurst is a Canada-based freelance writer and author who has written extensively on all things health and lifestyle for more than a decade. When she’s not holed-up in her writing shed researching an article or off interviewing health professionals, she can be found frolicking around her beach town with husband and dogs in tow or splashing about the lake trying to master the stand-up paddle board.