- High blood pressure
- High cholesterol, often from getting too much cholesterol or saturated fats in your diet
- High triglycerides, a type of fat (lipid) in your blood
- Smoking and other sources of tobacco
- Inflammation from diseases, such as arthritis, lupus or infections, or inflammation of unknown cause
- Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, blood cells and other substances often clump at the injury site and build up in the inner lining of the artery. Over time, fatty deposits (plaques) made of cholesterol and other cellular products also build up at the injury site and harden, narrowing your arteries. The organs and tissues connected to the blocked arteries then don’t receive enough blood to function properly.
- Eventually pieces of the fatty deposits may break off and enter your bloodstream. In addition, the smooth lining of a plaque may rupture, spilling cholesterol and other substances into your bloodstream. This may cause a blood clot, which can block the blood flow to a specific part of your body, such as occurs when blocked blood flow to your heart causes a heart attack. A blood clot can also travel to other parts of your body, blocking flow to another organ.
- If you have atherosclerosis in your heart arteries, you may have symptoms, such as chest pain or pressure (angina).
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your brain, you may have signs and symptoms such as sudden numbness or weakness in your arms or legs, difficulty speaking or slurred speech, or drooping muscles in your face. These signal a transient ischemic attack (TIA), which, if left untreated, may progress to a stroke.
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries in your arms and legs, you may have symptoms of peripheral artery disease, such as leg pain when walking (intermittent claudication).
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your kidneys, you develop high blood pressure or kidney failure.
- If you have atherosclerosis in the arteries leading to your genitals, you may have difficulties having sex. Sometimes, atherosclerosis can cause erectile dysfunction in men. In women, high blood pressure can reduce blood flow to the vagina, making sex less pleasurable.
When to see a doctor
If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your doctor. Also pay attention to early symptoms of inadequate blood flow, such as chest pain (angina), leg pain or numbness. Early diagnosis and treatment can stop atherosclerosis from worsening and prevent a heart attack, stroke or another medical emergency.