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Reviewed/Revised Jun 2023
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Topic Resources

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is known as hardening of the arteries. It's caused by a fat-like buildup (called atheromas or plaques) inside your arteries. Arteries are blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your organs. The buildup of atherosclerotic plagues slowly blocks the flow of blood through your arteries. Atherosclerosis is the most common cause of heart attacks Heart Attack A heart attack is when blood flow to part of your heart is suddenly blocked and some of your heart muscle dies. Go to an emergency department and chew on an aspirin tablet if you think you're... read more Heart Attack and strokes Stroke A stroke is a sudden brain problem that happens when a blood vessel in your brain either gets blocked or breaks open and bleeds. As with all organs in the body, the brain needs oxygen and nutrients... read more .

Blood Vessels

What causes atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis starts with repeated, small injuries to the lining of your arteries. The injuries can be caused by:

After your artery's lining is damaged, white blood cells attach to your artery and collect fatty cells and cholesterol. The cells and cholesterol build up to form hard clumps called plaques (atheromas). As the plaques get bigger, they start to block blood flow.

Fatty Deposits in a Coronary Artery

What increases the risk of atherosclerosis?

There are many risk factors for atherosclerosis. You can do things to deal with some risk factors. Other risk factors are out of your control.

Risk factors you can control or avoid include:

These are important risk factors you can't control:

  • Having close relatives with atherosclerosis

  • Being a man

  • Growing older

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Early atherosclerosis has no symptoms. After many years, symptoms depend on:

  • Where the blocked artery is located

  • Whether the artery slowly narrows or is suddenly blocked

If arteries slowly narrow, the first symptom is usually pain or cramps, such as chest pain during exercise or leg cramps while walking.

If arteries are suddenly blocked, you may have:

How can doctors tell if I have atherosclerosis?

If you have symptoms that suggest a blocked artery, doctors will do tests to look for the location and size of the blockage. Doctors do different tests depending on where the artery is. Tests may include:

If you have atherosclerosis, doctors will do blood tests to look for what caused it.

How do doctors treat and prevent atherosclerosis?

Changes to your lifestyle and taking medicines may stop the fatty build-up from growing or from having new blockages form.

You can lower your risk factors:

  • Stop smoking

  • Eat a healthy diet

  • Exercise

  • Take your medicines to lower cholesterol and blood pressure and control diabetes, as directed by your doctors

If you're likely to get atherosclerosis, your doctor may have you take a medicine called a statin and sometimes aspirin.

If changes to your lifestyle and taking medicines don't help, doctors may have to do surgery. The surgery is done to remove the blockage or redirect blood flow around the blockage.

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