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Frequently Asked Questions About Coronary Artery Disease

Learn about risk factors, symptoms and treatment for this condition.

image of stethoscope with the hose in the shape of a heart

Here are some answers to the top questions about coronary artery disease (CAD).

Q: What is coronary artery disease?

A: Coronary artery disease occurs when the arteries (blood vessels) that provide blood to the heart muscle become narrowed or blocked by fatty deposits called plaque, or atherosclerosis. The flow of oxygen-rich blood to the heart muscle may then be slowed or even stopped.

Q: What are risk factors for developing coronary artery disease?

A: Risk factors include smoking, unhealthy cholesterol levels, high blood pressure and high blood sugar. Some controllable lifestyle factors — such as being overweight or obese, having unhealthy eating habits or being inactive — also raise your risk. Other risk factors you cannot control include advancing age or family history of the disease. Some experts believe that sleep apnea, stress and alcohol abuse may raise your risk. The more risk factors you have, the greater your chance of developing the disease.

Q: What are the symptoms of coronary artery disease?

A: People with coronary artery disease may have a wide variety of symptoms, however, many do not have symptoms. When symptoms occur, the most common is chest pain or chest discomfort (angina). It may feel like squeezing or pressure. The discomfort may be in your shoulders, neck, jaw, throat, arms or back. Or it may feel like indigestion. You may be short of breath.

Others may experience:

  • Irregular or quickening heartbeat
  • Light-headedness, dizziness, fatigue or extreme weakness
  • Nausea, vomiting or a cold sweat

Chest pain is the most common symptom of coronary artery disease. However, women are more likely than men to have atypical symptoms including shortness of breath, nausea and vomiting, unusual fatigue, and pain in the back, shoulders, throat, neck, jaw and abdomen.

Shortness of breath is also more common in the elderly and people with diabetes.

If you have chest pain or any of these symptoms, call 911 right away. This could be the sign of a heart attack. If you have a history of angina, talk with your doctor during your regular office visit to learn what actions you should take if you experience chest pain and when you should seek emergency care.

Q: How is coronary artery disease treated?

A: Treating coronary artery disease may include medications along with changes in your lifestyle. Whether you are trying to prevent, delay or treat coronary artery disease, you can begin with the following lifestyle changes:

  • If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor for help.
  • Eat a heart-healthy diet. Emphasize fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts and legumes, skinless poultry and fish, and non-tropical vegetable oils. Include a variety of fish rich in omega-3 fatty acids such as salmon in your diet. Avoid eating fish with high levels of mercury. Limit food and drinks with added sugars. And limit foods high in sodium, high in saturated and total fat and cholesterol, such as red meats.
  • Get regular physical activity, aiming for 150 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise weekly. Always talk with your doctor before you start an exercise program or increase your activity level.
  • Reach and maintain a healthy weight.
  • If you choose to drink, limit alcoholic beverages to no more than two drinks a day for men, one drink a day for women.
  • Look for ways to reduce or better manage stress.
  • You should follow your doctor’s recommendations for managing any coexisting medical conditions such as high blood pressure, elevated cholesterol and diabetes.

In some cases, your doctor may prescribe medicine to treat coronary artery disease or manage the risk factors associated with coronary artery disease. If medications are recommended, be sure to take them as prescribed and keep all follow-up office visits. Depending on your diagnosis, your doctor also might suggest a cardiology procedure to open narrowed or blocked arteries, such as angioplasty and placement of a coronary artery stent. Sometimes surgery may be needed to bypass blocked vessels.

By Ginny Greene, Contributing Editor

Smith SC Jr, Benjamin EJ, Bonow RO, et al. AHA/ACCF secondary prevention and risk reduction therapy for patients with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease: 2011 update: A guideline from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Foundation.Circulation. 2011;124:2458–2473. Accessed: October 21, 2015.
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. What is coronary heart disease? Accessed: October 21, 2015.
Eckel RH, Jakicic JM, Ard JD, et al. 2013 AHA/ACC guideline on lifestyle management to reduce cardiovascular risk: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association task force on practice guidelines. J Am Coll Cardiol. 2014;63(25_PA):2960-2984. Accessed: October 21, 2015.
American Heart Association. The American Heart Association's diet and lifestyle recommendations. Accessed: October 22, 2015.

Last Updated: October 21, 2015