23 Unexpected Signs You're at Risk for Heart Disease
Don't ignore these subtle symptoms of an impending heart attack.
These days, we're paying closer attention to our health than ever, but that doesn't mean we're necessarily thinking about our hearts. You don't need us to tell you that your heart is one of the most important organs in your body. Day after day, behind the scenes, the fist-sized machine pumps blood through your veins and maintains the steady rhythm that keeps you alive. The best thing you can do in return? Listen to the telltale warning signs it sends you—often manifested in the form of seemingly mundane symptoms, like insomnia or upper back pain. If you don't, you're putting yourself at risk for all manner of heart disease. Here's what to look out for. And for more symptoms to be aware of, learn these 30 Warning Signs Your Heart Is Trying to Send You.
You have a toothache.
A toothache doesn't always require a trip to your dentist; actually, it may be a signal of a heart attack, as cardiologist Amar Singhal writes. "The pain may feel like it's radiating outward from the teeth or along the jaw, or can even feel like earache," he explains.
That's because, according to Greg Grobmyer, DDS, a dentist with Authority Dental, "oral bacteria can enter the bloodstream through inflamed tissues and settle on heart valves, creating bacterial plaques that lead to heart disease and heart attacks, strokes, and more."
You cough up pink or white mucus.
If you find that you're coughing up pink or white mucus—as opposed to the standard clear mucus—it could be a sign your heart is unhealthy. "A long-lasting cough that produces a strange-colored mucus could be the result of heart failure," says Nate Masterson of holistic medicine website Maple Holistics. "The white or pink color may be the result of blood leaking into the lungs."
Of course, heart failure does not mean your heart has stopped, or is about to stop working—that would be cardiac arrest. It simply means the heart is not able to pump blood the way it should, according to the U.S. National Library of Medicine. Discuss this symptom with your doctor in order to come up with a plan that will improve your heart health.
You have swollen extremities.
Swollen limbs, also known as edema, could signal something amiss in your cardiovascular system. "Feet and hands being swollen for long periods of time is a sign of blood not being pumped through the body properly," says Masterson. "When blood is not being pumped properly, it will naturally collect in the areas furthest away from the heart." If you find that any body part is constantly, inexplicably swollen, ask your doctor about it.
You're losing hair on your legs.
If you've found that your legs no longer require a shaving, that might be because of an underlying heart condition. "The nutrients that are necessary for hair growth are distributed via the blood," says Lina Velikova, MD, medical director at Synevo Bulgaria. "If the nutrients don't reach the hair or if the hairs don't get enough oxygen, they are likely to fall off."
In other words, sudden hair loss on your legs could signal your heart is having trouble pumping enough blood to your extremities. You'll notice this symptom on your lower legs first, since they're the farthest away from your heart.
Your toenails are purple.
Unless you've recently stubbed your toe, purple or blue toenails could mean your extremities are not receiving enough oxygen. "This is probably due to a clogged blood vessel, which indicates disrupted circulation," says Velikova. If the issue is left unattended, it could result in the loss of a toe due to dead tissue.
You can't catch your breath.
While getting winded on occasion is completely normal, feeling like you're constantly struggling to catch your breath is not. "If walking up the stairs suddenly becomes more difficult than it used to be, it could be a sign that you are having an issue with your heart," says Masterson. "People may think they are just out of shape, but running off to the gym while your heart is in this condition may actually induce a heart attack."
What's more, because arteries don't simply clog overnight, it's normal for such symptoms to worsen with time. Of course, shortness of breath can also be a symptom of coronavirus, so it's certainly worth monitoring.
You can't exercise as hard as you used to.
Even if you're not noticing intense shortness of breath, you might notice changes in how much you're able to exercise. "A gradual decrease of exercise tolerance can be a sign of worsening heart function," says Tarak Rambhatla, MD, a cardiologist with the Miami Cardiac & Vascular Institute. You might notice anything from fatigue and weakness to something more alarming, such as chest pain.
You're suffering from uncontrollable vomiting and nausea.
When the bottom lining of the heart that surrounds the structures of the stomach is inflamed, it can "produce reactions similar to the feelings of nausea, abdominal pain, and even vomiting," says Rambhatla. According to the Mayo Clinic, this symptom is more prevalent in women than in men. And for more warning signs to be aware of, This Is Everything Your Stomach Is Trying to Tell You About Your Health.
You're struggling in the bedroom.
Though it is entirely possible that your erectile dysfunction is simply a sign of stress or aging, Rambhatla advises that it might also be a sign of an underlying heart condition. If your heart isn't pumping as hard as it should be, the decreased blood flow could lead to weaker erections. Bring this symptom up to your doctor so they can help you get to the root of the issue.
You sweat excessively.
If you aren't exercising or being especially active, excessive sweating could signal the onset of a heart attack, according to an oft-cited study presented at the American Heart Association's annual meeting in 2005. And, of course, that means you'll want to get to the hospital as soon as possible, especially if the perspiration is accompanied by discomfort in the chest, arm, neck, or jaw.
"We can stop a heart attack during the process, but you have to get to the hospital first," said the study's author Catherine Ryan, research assistant professor of medical surgical nursing. "The real push for improved survival is to get them there early." And if you want to know more about what a heart attack feels like, read one person's account: I Survived a Heart Attack. Here's What It Was Like.
You have open sores on your feet.
Especially if they're not healing on their own, any open sores on your feet should be checked out by a doctor immediately, as they could be a sign of a specific heart condition called aortoiliac occlusive disease—or the blockage of the aorta, your body's main blood vessel. According to NYU Langone Health, failing to seek treatment for this malady could result in tissue death, or gangrene, eventually leading to limb loss if not treated properly.
You're experiencing pain in your jaw.
"Sometimes the manifestation of a heart attack or some cardiac event can be felt in the jaws, the teeth, and the neck," according to Steven D. Bender, DDS, director of the Center for Facial Pain and Sleep Medicine at Texas A&M's College of Dentistry. "It's not just the left side; it can happen on the right side, too, especially for women."
That means that jaw pain could be signaling that something is happening to your heart at that very moment—so be quick to spring into action if the pain persists.
You feel the urge to hit the bathroom constantly.
If you haven't recently increased your water intake, an overactive bladder could be a sign of heart trouble. In fact, according to a 2018 study published in the International Neurology Journal, up to half of all patients with heart failure suffer from "urinary incontinence and an overactive bladder."
You feel like you're choking.
The British Heart Foundation warns that a choking feeling around your neck could point to an impending heart attack. "The word 'angina' actually means 'choking', and sometimes the tightness or pain can be up in the throat. People tend to describe a 'restricting' or 'choking' sensation," the foundation warns. If this choking feeling persists, consult your doctor immediately.
You feel a fluttering in your chest.
If you feel a "thumping" or fluttering in your chest, it could be that you're experiencing the most common symptom associated with atrial fibrillation (AFib for short), a particular type of irregular heartbeat that occurs when the "abnormal firing of electrical impulses causes the atria (the top chambers in the heart) to quiver (or fibrillate)," according to the American Heart Association. Again, if this feeling persists, be sure to see a doctor since AFib can put you at an increased risk of heart disease and stroke.
You're experiencing confusion.
Have you been feeling off in general recently? Well, according to the American Heart Association, confusion, memory loss, and impaired thinking could be due to "changing levels of certain substances in the blood, such as sodium" that are a result of poor blood flow caused by heart failure.
You have sleep apnea.
Because sleep apnea, a persistent sleep disorder that causes your breathing to stop and start throughout the night, prevents you from getting a good night's sleep, the Mayo Clinic warns that it could lead to stroke, heart failure, and high blood pressure. According to a 2010 study published in the journal Circulation, men with severe sleep apnea were 58 percent more likely to develop congestive heart failure than men without the disorder.
You feel like you're having a panic attack.
When you feel like you're having an unwarranted panic attack, complete with the typical symptoms like shortness of breath, tightness in the chest, sweating, a pounding heartbeat, dizziness, and physical weakness, the University Pittsburgh Medical Center warns that it might not be a panic attack at all—but could actually be the symptoms of a heart attack. This is why it's essential to consult with a medical professional if your symptoms don't fade and get progressively worse instead.
You have terrible headaches.
Sometimes, a headache is just a headache—and other times, it could be a sign that you have a blood clot in your heart, according to the Mayo Clinic. Especially when the pain is paired with nausea and vomiting, a headache that just won't go away could be a sign that your heart is in trouble.
You've been fainting.
Though fainting could be a result of getting up too quickly or the medicine that you're currently taking, it could also be a result of a hidden heart problem. According to Mayo Clinic, that drop in blood pressure that resulted in your fainting spell could be due to a rupture of your aorta. This rupturing happens in a weakened area of the aortic wall, with high blood pressure stressing out the tissue and leading to the initial tear.
You have an ache in your left arm or shoulder.
Sometimes a lack of oxygen to your extremities will present itself in your left arm or shoulder. "The ache in the left arm and shoulder is a sign of angina," says Velikova. "The heart muscle cells are dying and the pain indicates the lack of oxygen supply." Though angina is not a heart attack, if left untreated, it can lead to one.
You're experiencing back pain.
Contrary to popular belief, the pain associated with a heart attack doesn't just occur in the chest—it can occur anywhere in your upper body, according to the Cleveland Clinic. When the heart is struggling to work properly, it can activate nerves that cause pain elsewhere, including the back. If you're dealing with back pain and discomfort that doesn't seem to be triggered by anything at all, it might be time to see a doctor.
You're having difficulty sleeping.
Insomnia isn't just a risk factor for heart disease—it can also be a symptom as well. According to the American College of Cardiology, "evidence is mounting for prospective links between insomnia and hypertension, cardiovascular events, and death." If you find yourself tossing and turning, particularly if it's due to shortness of breath, the safest thing to do is to consult with a doctor—stat.