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Coronary Artery Disease In Women

What is coronary artery disease?

Coronary artery disease (CAD), or heart disease, occurs when arteries that supply blood to your heart become narrow or blocked. CAD is caused by plaque (cholesterol, fat, and other substances) that builds up in your arteries. Oxygen cannot get to your heart when your arteries narrow or become blocked, which may be life-threatening.


What increases my risk for CAD?

  • Obesity and lack of exercise

  • Age 45 years or older

  • High blood pressure or high cholesterol

  • Diabetes

  • Smoking

  • Certain medicines, such as birth control pills

  • Family or personal history of heart attack

What are the signs and symptoms of CAD in women?

You may not have any symptoms at first. Symptoms may begin slowly but increase quickly as plaque builds up in your arteries. You may not notice symptoms until the artery starts to become blocked. Women often do not have the common signs and symptoms that men tend to have. You may not have tingling in your arm or chest pain. You may instead have a tight, heavy, or burning feeling in your chest. You may also have any of the following:

  • Pain in your back, neck, stomach, or jaw

  • Shortness of breath, or a cough

  • Nausea or vomiting

  • Indigestion, heartburn, or loss of appetite

  • Fast, slow, or pounding heartbeat

  • Tiredness or trouble sleeping

  • Anxiety

How is CAD diagnosed in women?

CAD is often more difficult to diagnose in women than in men. You may need any of the following:

  • Blood tests will check for high cholesterol or other medical conditions that may have led to CAD.

  • An EKG records the electrical activity of your heart. It is used to check your heart rhythm and it may show if there is damage to your heart.

  • An echocardiogram is a type of ultrasound. Sound waves are used to show the structure, movement, and blood vessels of your heart.

  • An exercise stress test helps healthcare providers see the changes that take place in your heart during exercise. An EKG is done while you ride an exercise bike or walk on a treadmill. Healthcare providers will ask if you have chest pain or trouble breathing during the test.

  • A stress test with medicine may be done if you cannot do the exercise stress test. You are given medicine that causes your heart to work harder. You will be connected to a stress test machine.

  • An angiography, CT scan, or MRI may be done to take pictures of your blood vessels and arteries. The pictures may show how narrow or blocked your blood vessels are. You may be given a contrast liquid to help healthcare providers see the pictures better. Tell the healthcare provider if you have ever had an allergic reaction to contrast liquid.

Which medicines are used to treat CAD?

  • Blood pressure medicines are given to lower your blood pressure. These medicines may include ACE inhibitors and beta-blockers. ACE inhibitors help keep your blood vessels relaxed and open. This helps keep blood flowing into your heart. Beta-blockers keep your heart pumping strongly and regularly. This helps keep your heart from working too hard to get oxygen.

  • Cholesterol medicines help lower blood cholesterol levels.

  • Nitrates , such as nitroglycerin, relax the arteries of your heart so it gets more oxygen. They help to relieve your chest pain.

  • Diuretics help your body get rid of extra fluid and protect your heart from more damage. You may urinate more often while you are taking diuretics.

  • Antiplatelets , such as aspirin, help prevent blood clots. Take your antiplatelet medicine exactly as directed. These medicines make it more likely for you to bleed or bruise. If you are told to take aspirin, do not take acetaminophen or ibuprofen instead.

  • Blood thinners keep clots from forming in your blood. Clots may cause heart attacks, strokes, or death. This medicine makes it more likely for you to bleed or bruise.

Which procedures are used to treat CAD?

  • An angioplasty may be done to open an artery blocked by plaque. A tube with a balloon on the end is threaded into the blocked artery. Once the tube is in the artery, the balloon is inflated. As the balloon inflates, it presses the plaque against the artery wall to open the artery. A stent may be placed in your artery to keep it open.

  • Coronary artery bypass surgery (CABG) is open heart surgery. Healthcare providers take arteries or veins from other areas in your body and use them to bypass or go around the blocked arteries of your heart.

What is cardiac rehabilitation?

Your healthcare provider may recommend that you attend cardiac rehabilitation (rehab). This is a program run by specialists who will help you safely strengthen your heart and reduce the risk of more heart disease. The plan includes exercise, relaxation, stress management, and heart-healthy nutrition. Healthcare providers will also check to make sure any medicines you are taking are working.

What lifestyle changes do I need to make?

  • Exercise regularly. Exercise at least 30 minutes each day, on most days of the week. Exercise helps to lower high cholesterol and high blood pressure. It can also help you maintain a healthy weight. Ask your healthcare provider about the kind of exercise you should do and how to get started.

  • Maintain a healthy weight. If you are overweight, talk to your healthcare provider about how to lose weight. A weight loss of 10% can improve your heart health.

  • Eat heart healthy foods. Include fresh fruits and vegetables in your meal plan. Choose low-fat foods, such as skim or 1% fat milk, low-fat cheese and yogurt, fish, chicken (without skin), and lean meats. Eat two 4-ounce servings of fish high in omega-3 fats each week, such as salmon, fresh tuna, and herring. Avoid foods that are high in sodium, such as canned foods, potato chips, salty snacks, and cold cuts. Put less table salt on your food.

  • Do not smoke. Smoking increases your risk of a heart attack. If you smoke, it is never too late to quit. Ask your healthcare provider for information if you need help quitting.

  • Limit or do not drink alcohol. A drink of alcohol is 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1½ ounces of liquor.

  • Manage other health conditions. Follow your healthcare provider's advice on how to manage other conditions that can affect your heart health. These include diabetes, high blood pressure, and high cholesterol. You may need to take medicines for these conditions and make other lifestyle changes.

  • Ask if you should have a flu vaccine. The flu can be dangerous for a person who has CAD. The flu vaccine is available every year in the fall.

Call 911 for any of the following signs of a heart attack:

  • Squeezing, pressure, fullness, or pain in your chest that lasts longer than a few minutes or returns

  • Discomfort or pain in your back, neck, jaw, stomach, or arm

  • Shortness of breath or breathing problems

  • A sudden cold sweat, lightheadedness, dizziness, or nausea, especially with chest pain or trouble breathing

When should I contact my healthcare provider?

  • You have chest pain that is more frequent or you have chest pain at rest.

  • You feel depressed or anxious.

  • You have questions or concerns about your condition or care.

Care Agreement

You have the right to help plan your care. Learn about your health condition and how it may be treated. Discuss treatment options with your caregivers to decide what care you want to receive. You always have the right to refuse treatment. The above information is an educational aid only. It is not intended as medical advice for individual conditions or treatments. Talk to your doctor, nurse or pharmacist before following any medical regimen to see if it is safe and effective for you.

© 2015 Truven Health Analytics Inc. Information is for End User's use only and may not be sold, redistributed or otherwise used for commercial purposes. All illustrations and images included in CareNotes® are the copyrighted property of A.D.A.M., Inc. or Truven Health Analytics.

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