Common heart conditions

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Heart disease is more than just heart attacks and blocked arteries. Learn more about common heart problems and other conditions that can affect your heart health.

Coronary artery disease

group of people hikingCoronary artery disease (CAD), the most common heart disease, occurs when LDL, or "bad" cholesterol, builds up plaque in your heart's arteries.

In early stages, CAD has no symptoms. When plaque gets large enough to block your blood flow, you may feel symptoms like chest pain, shortness of breath, and fatigue. Chest pain is a more common symptom in men than in women.

If plaque ruptures, a blood clot forms and blocks an artery to your heart. Because the clot blocks the artery, the blood can't deliver its oxygen to part of your heart, so some of your heart's muscle becomes damaged, perhaps permanently. This is known as a myocardial infarction, or heart attack.

Heart failure

Your heart is a muscle, and it contracts and relaxes to pump blood continuously to every part of your body. If your heart muscle becomes weak or stiff, your heart valves develop problems, or other health conditions reduce or change your heart's pumping ability, it's called congestive heart failure (CHF). Despite the name, having heart failure doesn't mean that your heart is about to stop or has stopped working.

With CHF, your heart isn't pumping enough blood to meet your body's needs (low output), or it's pumping at a pressure that's too high, so that fluid backs up from your heart into your lungs, ankles, abdomen, and other parts of your body (fluid congestion). Some people with heart failure can have both low output and congestion.

Because shortness of breath is the most common symptom of CHF, it's sometimes confused with asthma or a "chronic cough." The shortness of breath associated with CHF is often worse when you're lying flat. You may also notice swelling in your legs or ankles.

Arrhythmia

Arrhythmia means that your heart beats too fast, too slow, or irregularly. There are many types, but here are a few common ones:

Valvular heart disease

There are four different valves in the heart, and each of them can develop problems. Sometimes children are born with heart valve problems, but infections can also damage the heart valves over time. Here are some types of valvular heart disease:

Aortic valve regurgitation
Aortic valve stenosis
Endocarditis
Mitral valve regurgitation
Mitral valve stenosis
Mitral valve prolapse

Aortic aneurysms

The aorta is the large blood vessel that carries blood from the heart to the rest of the body. An aortic aneurysm is when the aorta enlarges or develops a bulge, due to inherited diseases or longstanding high blood pressure or high cholesterol. Aortic aneurysms can burst, and the consequences can be serious.

Heart infections

Some infections can attack the heart directly. Tuberculosis, viruses, and some other infections can inflame the sac surrounding the heart, causing pericarditis. Some viruses can attack the heart muscle, causing myocarditis, a swelling of the heart muscle that sometimes weakens it. Rarely, bacteria can infect the heart valves, causing endocarditis.

Heart problems at birth

Some children are born with heart defects. These problems may involve the valves, the vessels leading to and from the heart, or a hole between the pairs of heart chambers.

Reviewed by Eleanor Levin, MD, FACC, and Anthony Steimle, MD, FACC, November 2015
Additional Kaiser Permanente reviewers

©2015 Kaiser Permanente

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