Heart Disease: A Survival Guide

The term "heart disease" broadly refers to a range of diseases-more than 50-that affect your heart and blood vessels and is often used interchangeably with "cardiovascular disease." Heart disease is the number one killer of men and women in the U.S.

Some of the various diseases that come under the umbrella of heart disease include:

  • Diseases of the blood vessels, such as coronary artery disease
  • Heart rhythm problems or arrhythmias
  • Heart defects you're born with known as congenital heart disease
  • Heart conditions caused by infections that affect the heart's muscle, valves, or beating rhythms 

Symptoms and Causes

Heart disease symptoms vary depending on the type of heart disease you have.

Cardiovascular disease is often caused by an unhealthy diet, a sedentary lifestyle, obesity, and smoking. Symptoms include:

  • Chest pain (angina)
  • Shortness of breath
  • Pain, numbness, weakness, or coldness in your legs or arms

Abnormal heartbeats or heart arrhythmias cause a person's heart to beat too fast, too slowly or irregularly and may be caused by high blood pressure, diabetes, smoking, drug abuse, stress, and some types of OTC and prescription medications. Some symptoms include:

  • Fluttering in your chest
  • Racing heartbeat (tachycardia)
  • Slow heartbeat (bradycardia)
  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Lightheadedness
  • Dizziness
  • Fainting or near fainting

Although the causes of congenital heart disease are unclear, researchers believe certain medical conditions, medications, and genetics may play a role. Heart disease symptoms in infants caused by congenital heart defects include:

  • Pale gray or blue skin color
  • Swelling in the legs, abdomen, or areas around the eyes
  • Shortness of breath during feedings

There are three types of heart infections that can cause heart disease:

  • Pericarditis, which affects the tissue surrounding the heart
  • Myocarditis, which affects the muscular walls of the heart
  • Endocarditis, which affects the inner membrane that separates the chambers and valves of the heart

Heart infections can develop when an irritant, including a bacteria, virus, or chemical, such as cocaine, reaches the heart muscle. Heart infection symptoms can include:

  • Fever
  • Shortness of breath
  • Weakness or fatigue
  • Swelling in the legs or abdomen
  • Changes in your heart rhythm
  • Dry or persistent cough
  • Skin rashes

When to See Your Doctor

When detected early. heart disease is easier to treat and your long-term prognosis is improved. If you have concerns about your heart, talk to your doctor about how you can reduce your risk for heart disease. Seek immediate medical care if you have these heart disease symptoms:

  • Chest pain
  • Shortness of breath
  • Fainting