Last updated:

Reviewed by:

Dr Bryony Henderson

, Lead GP at Livi

Medically reviewed

Atherosclerosis is a condition that affects your blood vessels and often your blood flow. Learn about the symptoms, causes and possible complications.

What is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis, sometimes called arteriosclerosis, is caused by a buildup of fatty substances in the walls of your arteries. This buildup forms plaques, also known as an atheroma. The plaques can cause your artery walls to become stiff and narrow, which reduces the flow of blood through the affected blood vessel.

What are the symptoms of atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis doesn’t always cause symptoms. However, it can cause serious health problems like strokes or heart attacks. If you do develop symptoms, you might experience: 

  • Chest pain

  • Shortness of breath

  • Feeling tired or weak

  • Feeling confused 

  • Pain in your legs and arms 

What are the complications of atherosclerosis?

It’s important to get a diagnosis of atherosclerosis so that you can manage it. Without management, people with atherosclerosis are at a higher risk of:

  • Stroke or transient ischaemic attack – when blood flow to the brain is blocked 

  • Heart attack – when blood flow to the heart is blocked, which can happen when the coronary artery has a buildup of plaques

  • Angina – chest pain caused by your heart not getting enough blood

  • Coronary heart disease – when the main arteries supplying your heart become more blocked.

  • Peripheral arterial disease – when the blood vessels in your legs become blocked

How common is atherosclerosis?

Atherosclerosis is a common disease and it becomes more common as you age.

What causes atherosclerosis?

The exact causes of atherosclerosis are unknown, but there is a lot of evidence to suggest the chances of developing the disease is heavily affected by your lifestyle.

Who is at risk of atherosclerosis?

Risk factors associated with atherosclerosis include:

  • Older age

  • Drinking lots of alcohol 

  • Smoking

  • Having a family member who has a cardiovascular disease

  • Eating an unhealthy diet 

  • Being overweight 

  • Not exercising

  • Having high cholesterol or high blood pressure 

How is atherosclerosis diagnosed?

Your risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular disease can be assessed during a routine check.

A diagnosis of atherosclerosis starts with a doctor asking you a few questions about your lifestyle. This can help them to assess your risk of having the condition. These questions may be:

  • Do you or have you ever smoked?

  • Has anyone in your family had any cardiovascular disease?

  • Do you have any long-term conditions?

You may then have some tests done. They may include:

  • Blood tests – to look at your cholesterol levels and general health

  • CT scan – to check how much plaque has built up in the arteries of your heart

  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) – to look at your heart's electrical activity

  • Carotid ultrasound – to look at the carotid arteries that run through your neck

  • Coronary angiogram – to check the blood flow through your heart by injecting a dye which shows up on an x-ray

How to prevent atherosclerosis

Following a healthy lifestyle is the best way to prevent atherosclerosis. Some general advice for prevention includes:

  • Improve your diet – eat more fruits and vegetables and less sugar and processed foods

  • Exercise more – movement is good for your heart health 

  • Stop smoking 

  • Decrease the amount of alcohol you drink

How to treat atherosclerosis

Depending on the severity of your condition, you may be encouraged to improve your lifestyle before being offered any medical treatments. This can prevent atherosclerosis from worsening. 

Unfortunately, nothing can act to reverse atherosclerosis, but it can be managed. Treatments for atherosclerosis are often put in place to reduce someone's risk of complications. These treatments may include:

  • Medicine for high blood pressure

  • Medicine for high cholesterol, such as statins

  • Medicine to reduce the likelihood of blood clots 

  • Surgery to widen narrowed arteries – this may be coronary bypass or coronary angioplasty

When should I speak to a doctor?

Seeking help for atherosclerosis early is important as you can prevent the condition getting worse by making some lifestyle changes. If you experience any of the symptoms above, get in contact with a GP surgery to arrange an appointment.

What can Livi do to help?

A Livi healthcare professional can discuss your risk factors with you and can offer tailored lifestyle advice. offer medical advice for symptoms that do not require a physical examination. We can also refer you to a specialist if needed. 


Last updated:
Reviewed by:
Dr Bryony Henderson, Lead GP at Livi