Chapter 3 : How Do You Know if You Have Heart Disease ?

What do all of the heart diseases covered in the last chapter have in common? The earlier you catch them, the better your prognosis will be. Therefore, it’s important to understand what the symptoms of heart disease are, so that you can identify it and seek help before a heart attack happens.

Symptoms of Heart Disease in Children

Severe heart defects in infants are often diagnosed either in utero or immediately after birth. Problems with the structure of the heart are often visible to the trained eye when ultrasounds are taken, or irregularities can be detected in the fetal heartbeat. However, less severe heart defects may not show symptoms until later in life.

If you notice any of the symptoms below in your child, make sure to report it to your doctor immediately. He or she will be able to perform more tests to verify if a heart defect might be the cause.

  • Tiring quickly - The child seems to get tired far more quickly than his or her peers do.
  • Slower than usual growth - The child does not seem to growing as fast as a normal baby. This doesn’t necessarily mean they have a heart defect, but they should be checked out just in case.
  • Breathing Problems - The child may begin to gasp, breathe rapidly, or experience shortness of breath. This is caused by the heart not getting oxygen to the rest of the body in an effective manner.
  • Cyanosis - Cyanosis is a blue coloration of the skin. It is usually most visible in the lips and under the fingernails. Cyanosis is a very serious symptom because it indicates that the child’s body is not getting enough oxygen.
  • Fainting spells, especially during exercise - Fainting during strenuous activity can also be a sign that the child’s heart is not providing enough oxygen to the rest of the body.
  • Difficulty in feeding - As every parent knows, most babies will find a normal rhythm during feeding and stick to it. However, babies with heart defects may experience difficulty eating because they become short of breath. They may stop sucking and start to breathe rapidly.

Also, it’s important to be aware that many children with abnormal heart valves show no visible symptoms at all. Therefore, it is crucial to take your child in for all of their regular checkups. A physician can often detect these problems by listening to the child’s heart. Children with leaky or stenotic valves usually have audible heart murmurs.

Symptoms of Heart Disease in Adults

In adults, symptoms of heart disease can be sneaky and easy to miss at first. Parents, doctors, and teachers constantly monitor children and investigate anything that seems abnormal. However, as an adult, you have to monitor yourself, and it’s all too easy to make excuses for symptoms that you don’t want to be there in the first place.

However, heart disease is the number one killer for adults in America today, so you really can’t afford to be anything less than vigilant. If you experience any of the symptoms below on a regular basis, please talk to your doctor about it to make sure that you receive the appropriate screening and treatment.


This is the most common symptom of coronary artery disease, although it also occurs as a result of some other forms of heart disease. Angina is basically chest pain. It is often described as a crushing sort of pain, or a combination of pain and pressure in the chest region. Angina is caused when the blood supply to the heart is blocked and the heart is being starved for the oxygen it needs. In addition to chest pain, you may also feel discomfort in the shoulders, neck, and arms.

Angina is classified based on how predictable the pain is. There are two types: stable and unstable. Stable angina always happens under certain conditions - after running, climbing stairs, or doing anything that increases the workload of your heart. Unstable angina is unpredictable - you might be watching TV when it strikes.

Stable angina means that an artery is narrowed, but that the width of the blockage remains constant. The heart is able to keep the body well-fed with oxygen unless physical demands are placed upon it. Unstable angina means that an artery is partially obstructed and the width of the blockage is changing - either chunks of it are breaking off or blot clots are forming at the site and then being pushed onward. Unstable angina is the most dangerous form because an unstable blockage is more likely to suddenly and completely shut off blood flow to the heart.


A heart palpitation is the sensation that your heart is “skipping a beat.” This symptom often signals that you have a heart arrhythmia. Sometimes, arrhythmias are temporary and not dangerous, so if it only happens very occasionally and is not combined with other symptoms, there is probably not cause for concern. However, if this symptom occurs frequently or in conjunction with any of the other symptoms listed here, it is important to see your doctor.

Fast heartbeat

Feeling like your heart is racing even though you have not been engaging in strenuous activity can be a symptom of heart disease. This symptom also occurs in people without any problems, however, so don’t worry if it only happens occasionally. If it happens often or in conjunction with other symptoms, you should see a doctor.

Dizzy spells

Spells of lightheadedness or dizziness can have many causes. However, heart disease is one possible cause, so if it happens often, it’s best to be examined by a doctor who can determine the cause and administer the appropriate treatment.


Fainting, or sudden loss of consciousness, is a very common experience and usually not serious. However, if you have had any issues with heart disease in the past or you experience a fainting spell in conjunction with other possible symptoms of heart disease, it is imperative that you see a doctor to rule out a potentially fatal arrhythmia.


Suddenly becoming more tired than usual during your day-to-day activities is another possible indicator of heart disease.

Shortness of breath

If you lose your breath and find yourself gasping for air during your normal daily activities, you may have either heart disease or a lung disorder.


Nausea can also be a symptom of some heart conditions. Of course, nausea can have a variety of other causes . . . anything from drinking too much to bad sushi the night before. So, use your best judgment before you start worrying about it.

Sudden, rapid weight gain

This can be a sign of heart failure. Now, merely gaining a few pounds over the holidays is not a cause for concern. However, gains of 2 to 3 pounds in one day accompanied by swelling in the legs, ankles, or belly and/or any other cardiac symptoms are a definite cause for concern.

If you experience any of the above symptoms, it’s important not to immediately panic. Many of these symptoms have a variety of other possible causes aside from heart disease. Most of the time, these other possibilities are both more probable and more benign. However, if you experience any one of these symptoms frequently or experience more than one of them at the same time, it is best to go see a doctor to make sure that you don’t have an undiagnosed heart condition.

Symptoms of a Heart Attack

On the other hand, if you experience any of the following symptoms, it’s best to start worrying and call 911 immediately. The symptoms below are signs that you may be experiencing a myocardial infarction - otherwise known as a heart attack.

A heart attack happens when blood flow to the heart is stopped for any reason. Most commonly, this happens due to fatty deposits called plaque building up along the arteries and making them narrower. Sometimes, a plaque deposit will break off and narrow the artery even further. Blood clots often form around the bits of broken off plaque, completely shutting down blood flow to the heart. Without blood, the heart is starved of the oxygen it needs and begins to die - a heart attack. This process can produce some or all of the symptoms below:

  • Chest pain - Chest pain is the stereotypical symptom of a heart attack. Usually, heart attack sufferers describe it as an intense, crushing pain. Sometimes it radiates to the left arm, the neck and the jaw. For some people, the pain is accompanied by a pins-and-needles sensation, as though the arm had gone to sleep. However, it’s important to realize that only a little over 50% of the patients who experience a heart attack actually have chest pain. So, make sure you are also aware of other possible symptoms.
  • Pain in the arms or abdomen
  • Nausea, including throwing up
  • Profuse sweating, even when you are in a cool environment
  • Angor animi: A feeling of absolute terror caused by a sense of approaching death.
  • Dizziness, light-headedness and loss of consciousness
  • Feeling like you are “out of breath” for no apparent reason
  • Becoming extremely and unusually tired after physical activity

What to do if you have a heart attack

If you begin experiencing any combination of the symptoms listed above, you could be having a heart attack. If you have had episodes of angina before, it may be hard to tell the difference between a heart attack and a severe episode of angina. Try taking 3 doses of angina medication every 5 minutes or until the chest pain goes away. If the pain persists after 15 minutes or 3 doses of medication, you are probably having a heart attack instead of just experiencing angina.

The first action to take if you suspect that you or someone you are with is having a heart attack is to call an ambulance immediately. If you’re alone, DO NOT attempt to drive yourself. Even if you think you can make it, you could suddenly lose consciousness and cause an automobile accident.

The next step is to chew an aspirin if one is available. Aspirin helps break up blood clots, and most heart attacks are caused by a combination of plaque and blood clots blocking the coronary arteries. Chewing it may not taste very pleasant, but it will get the aspirin into your bloodstream much faster than swallowing the pill whole. When the ambulance gets there, make sure to advise the emergency personnel that you have taken aspirin already so that they don’t give you more.

After the emergency crew arrives, they will assess the situation and get you to the hospital as quickly as possible. Many people are afraid to call an ambulance due to the cost. Or, they may be unsure of their symptoms, and not want to be rushed to the hospital in an ambulance for what might be a false alarm. However, if you suspect a heart attack, it really is best to go ahead and make the phone call. There are several advantages to being picked up by an ambulance, and if you suspect a heart attack it’s definitely worth the extra cost.

For example, if your heart has stopped, the paramedics can try to revive you using special equipment. They also have heart medicine, medication to break up clots, medicine to relieve pain and portable machines to monitor your heart rate. Another advantage of calling the ambulance instead of being driven to the hospital by a friend or family member is that people who come into the ER by ambulance get care faster than people who are admitted in the waiting room. The ambulance personnel can start evaluating your condition immediately and sometimes they can even call ahead to let the hospital know that you’re coming.

Once you arrive at the hospital, measures will be taken to evaluate and stabilize your condition. You will be seen by a cardiologist, a doctor that specializes in heart conditions. He or she will determine the best way to proceed in order to clear away the blockage in your artery.

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