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Atherosclerosis is where your arteries become narrowed, making it difficult for blood to flow through them. It increases your risk of heart attack and stroke.

Lifestyle changes, like stopping smoking, eating healthily and exercising regularly, can help stop atherosclerosis getting worse.

Check if you have atherosclerosis

You may not have any symptoms of atherosclerosis, but symptoms can include:

  • chest pain
  • pain in your arms and legs, especially when exercising
  • feeling short of breath
  • feeling tired all the time
  • feeling weak
  • feeling confused

If you're over 40 you can get a free NHS health check which can spot the early signs of heart disease and stroke, as well as kidney disease, dementia and type 2 diabetes.

Urgent advice: Ask for an urgent GP appointment or get help from NHS 111 if:

  • you have chest pain that comes and goes
  • you feel short of breath
  • you have pain in your arms and legs when walking or exercising

You can call 111 or get help from 111 online.

Causes of atherosclerosis

Atherosclerosis happens when fatty deposits build up in the arteries, which causes them to narrow.

Things that increase your chances of getting atherosclerosis include:

Things you can do to help with atherosclerosis

There are some things you can do to help stop atherosclerosis getting worse:



  • do not smoke

  • do not drink more than 14 units of alcohol per week

Treatments for atherosclerosis

There are currently no treatments to reverse atherosclerosis, but you may be offered medicines to lower your risk of having a heart attack or a stroke.

You may need medicines to:

  • lower your cholesterol (statins)
  • lower your blood pressure
  • lower your risk of blood clots
  • lower your blood sugar levels if you have diabetes

You may also need surgery to help improve blood flow through the affected arteries.

Complications of atherosclerosis

Without lifestyle changes and medical treatment, atherosclerosis may get worse over time.

It can cause:

Immediate action required: Call 999 if you have:

  • signs of a heart attack – pain like a tight band or heavy weight in your chest
  • signs of a stroke – face dropping on 1 side, cannot hold both your arms up, difficulty speaking
  • difficulty breathing – gasping for breath, choking, not able to get any words out
  • sudden confusion – unable to think or speak clearly, suddenly do not know where you are

Do not drive yourself to A&E.

The person you speak to at 999 will give you advice about what to do.

Page last reviewed: 30 January 2023
Next review due: 30 January 2026