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Arteriosclerosis / atherosclerosis

Medically reviewed by Last updated on Jul 1, 2022.


Arteriosclerosis and atherosclerosis are sometimes used to mean the same thing, but there's a difference between the two terms.

Arteriosclerosis occurs when the blood vessels that carry oxygen and nutrients from the heart to the rest of the body (arteries) become thick and stiff — sometimes restricting blood flow to the organs and tissues. Healthy arteries are flexible and elastic. But over time, the walls in the arteries can harden, a condition commonly called hardening of the arteries.

Atherosclerosis is a specific type of arteriosclerosis.

Atherosclerosis is the buildup of fats, cholesterol and other substances in and on the artery walls. This buildup is called plaque. The plaque can cause arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. The plaque can also burst, leading to a blood clot.

Although atherosclerosis is often considered a heart problem, it can affect arteries anywhere in the body. Atherosclerosis can be treated. Healthy lifestyle habits can help prevent atherosclerosis.


Mild atherosclerosis usually doesn't have any symptoms.

Atherosclerosis symptoms usually don't happen until an artery is so narrowed or clogged that it can't supply enough blood to organs and tissues. Sometimes a blood clot completely blocks blood flow. The clot may break apart and can trigger a heart attack or stroke.

Symptoms of moderate to severe atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are affected. For example:

When to see a doctor

If you think you have atherosclerosis, talk to your health care provider. Also pay attention to early symptoms caused by a lack of 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.


Atherosclerosis is a slowly worsening disease that may begin as early as childhood. The exact cause is unknown. It may start with damage or injury to the inner layer of an artery. The damage may be caused by:

Once the inner wall of an artery is damaged, blood cells and other substances may gather at the injury site and build up in the inner lining of the artery.

Over time, fats, cholesterols and other substances also collect on the inner walls of the heart arteries. This buildup is called plaque. Plaque can cause the arteries to narrow, blocking blood flow. The plaque can also burst, leading to a blood clot.

Development of atherosclerosis

If there's too much cholesterol in the blood, the cholesterol and other substances may form deposits called plaque. Plaque can cause an artery to become narrowed or blocked. If a plaque ruptures, a blood clot can form. Plaque and blood clots can reduce blood flow through an artery.

Risk factors

Hardening of the arteries occurs over time. Aging is a risk factor for atherosclerosis. Other things that may increase the risk of atherosclerosis include:


The complications of atherosclerosis depend on which arteries are narrowed or blocked. For example:


The same healthy lifestyle changes recommended to treat atherosclerosis also help prevent it. These lifestyle changes can help keep the arteries healthy:


Your health care provider will perform a physical exam and ask questions about your personal and family health history. You may be referred to a doctor that specializes in heart diseases (cardiologist).

Your provider may hear a whooshing sound (bruit) when listening to your arteries with a stethoscope.

Depending on the results of the physical exam, your health care provider may suggest one or more tests, including:

Coronary calcium scan

A coronary calcium scan uses computerized tomography (CT) imaging to take pictures of your heart's arteries. It can detect calcium deposits in the coronary arteries. Calcium deposits can narrow the arteries and increase the risk of a heart attack. The image on the left shows where the heart is typically located in the body (A). The middle image shows the area of the coronary calcium scan image (B). The image on the right shows a coronary calcium scan (C).


Lifestyle changes, such as eating a healthy diet and exercising, may be all that is needed to treat atherosclerosis. But sometimes, medication or surgical procedures may be needed.


Many different drugs are available to slow — or even reverse — the effects of atherosclerosis. Here are some medications used to treat atherosclerosis:

Surgery or other procedures

Sometimes more aggressive treatment is needed to treat atherosclerosis. If you have severe symptoms or a blockage, you may need a procedure or surgery, including:

Lifestyle and home remedies

Making certain lifestyle changes can help keep the arteries healthy and can prevent or slow atherosclerosis. Try these heart-healthy tips:

If you have high cholesterol, high blood pressure, diabetes or another chronic disease, work with your health care provider to manage the condition and promote overall health.

Alternative medicine

It's thought that some foods and herbal supplements may help reduce high cholesterol and high blood pressure, two major risk factors for developing atherosclerosis. Alternative medicine supplements and products that may be effective for atherosclerosis include:

Talk to your health care provider before adding any of these or other supplements to your atherosclerosis treatment. Some supplements can interact with medications, causing harmful side effects.

Preparing for an appointment

If you think you may have atherosclerosis or are concerned about having atherosclerosis because of a strong family history of heart disease, make an appointment with your provider to have your cholesterol level checked.

Here's some information to help you get ready for your appointment.

What you can do

Preparing a list of questions will help you make the most of your time with your health care provider. For atherosclerosis, some basic questions to ask your provider include:

Don't hesitate to ask any other questions you have.

What to expect from your doctor

Your health care provider is likely to ask many questions, including:

What you can do in the meantime

It's never too early to make healthy lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, eating healthy foods and getting more exercise. These are simple ways to protect yourself against atherosclerosis and its complications, including heart attack and stroke.

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