I am
Show me:
Show me:
What is coronary heart disease?
heartfoundation.org.au|Helpline 13 11 12

What is coronary heart disease?

Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease occurs when a coronary artery clogs and narrows because of a buildup of plaque.

Key takeaways

  • There is no single cause for coronary heart disease (also known as coronary artery disease). 
  • There are controllable and non-controllable 'risk factors' that can increase your chance of developing it. 
  • Many people don't know they have coronary heart disease until they have angina or a heart attack. 
  • Cardiac rehabilitation programs can complement the advice that your GP and/or cardiologist gives you. 
5 min read
Your heart is the most important muscle as it pumps blood all over your body. To work properly, it needs a continuous blood supply. Coronary arteries are the blood vessels that supply your heart muscle with its blood. This blood is full of oxygen, which is needed by every cell in your body. 

What is coronary heart disease (CHD)? 

Coronary heart disease (CHD) or coronary artery disease occurs when a coronary artery clogs and narrows because of a buildup of plaque.  

Plaque is made of fat, cholesterol and other materials. This plaque builds up inside artery walls and can cause the arteries to narrow and stiffen. This reduces the blood flow and vital oxygen to your heart muscle. The process of arthrosclerosis, the buildup of plaque in the wall of the arteries, happens over time. 

Without an enough blood supply, the heart is starved of the oxygen it needs to work properly. This can cause chest pain called angina. If the artery wall tears and plaque leaks into the bloodstream, it can cause a blood clot to form, blocking the blood vessel. If the blood flow to the heart muscle is stopped, or the heart does not get enough blood flow, a heart attack (injury to the heart muscle) can occur.  

Why is plaque a problem for my arteries? 

Heart disease is the leading cause of death of Australians. In 2018, an average of 2 people died of CHD each hour. This equates to 48 Australians dying every single day.  

Yet many Australians don’t know that they have coronary heart disease until they have a heart attack – which can be life-threatening – or angina. You may not know that you’re living with growing plaque buildup in the walls of your coronary arteries because you have no symptoms.  

The best way to know your risk of heart attack is to have a Heart Health Check with your doctor and to know your risk factors. 

Is coronary heart disease the same as cardiovascular disease? 

Cardiovascular disease is any disease of the heart and/or blood vessels. It includes conditions such as:
  • Cardiomyopathy 
  • Congenital heart conditions 
  • Coronary heart disease 
  • Heart failure 
  • Heart valve problems 
  • Stroke. 

What are the risk factors for coronary heart disease? 

There is no single cause for coronary heart disease. There are controllable and non-controllable risk factors that can increase your chance of developing it.  

Coronary heart disease risk factors that you can change include:  
  • Unhealthy eating  
  • Being physically inactive 
  • Being overweight or obese 
  • Smoking – either being a smoker or inhaling other people’s smoke (passive smoking) 
  • Diabetes 
  • High blood pressure 
  • High cholesterol 
  • Lack of good social support. 
Coronary heart disease risk factors that you can’t change
  • Family history of coronary heart disease 
  • Getting older 
  • Ethnicity – Māori, Pasifika people and those from South Asian countries are at higher risk of heart disease 
  • Being male 
  • Being a post-menopausal woman 
  • Severe mental illness. 

How is CHD diagnosed? 

To diagnose CHD, your doctor will review your symptoms, ask about a family history of heart disease and conduct a physical examination. Your doctor may order you to have some tests including: 
  • Blood tests 
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG) 
  • Stress test 
  • Echocardiogram (ECHO) 
  • Coronary angiogram or coronary computed tomography angiogram (CCTA) 
  • Myocardial perfusion study (MPS) 
  • Computerised tomography scan (CT scan). 

How to manage your CHD 

You can’t cure CHD; it’s a chronic condition that requires lifetime management to reduce your risk of a heart attack or stroke. Management of CHD involves reducing your risk factors, taking medications as prescribed and undergoing surgical procedures if recommended. See your doctor regularly, keep up-to-date with your vaccinations and always go to your medical appointments.  

Make lifestyle changes 

  1. Eat a heart healthy diet and maintain a healthy weight 
  2. Spend more time being physically active 
  3. Don’t smoke  
  4. Control your cholesterol levels  
  5. Control your blood pressure  

Take your prescribed medications as instructed 

Your doctor may prescribe one or more of the following: 
  • Angiotensin converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors  - these can lower blood pressure and reduce the strain on the heart. 
  • Anti-coagulants - these can reduce the risk of blood clots forming. 
  • Antiplatelet agents  - these can reduce the risk of clots forming and limit damage if you have a heart attack. 
  • Beta blockers  - these can lower blood pressure and regulate your heart rate and rhythm. 
  • Calcium channel blockers  - these can lower blood pressure, relieve chest pain and slow heart rate. 
  • Nitrate medications (Anginine, GTN) - can increase blood flow to your heart. These are available in a spray or dissolvable tablet form. 
  • Statins - these can lower bad cholesterol and triglycerides. 

Attend cardiac rehabilitation  

Cardiac rehabilitation programs help you to learn about managing heart disease and how to engage in healthy physical activity. 

How is CHD treated? 

Your doctor may suggest one of the below procedures. 

Angioplasty and stents 

Angioplasty uses a special balloon to widen a narrowed or blocked artery. This restores blood flow to the heart. During this procedure, the surgeon may put a small mesh tube called a stent into the artery to keep it open.

Coronary Artery Bypass Graft (CABG) Surgery 

Bypass surgery improves blood flow to the heart to treat angina. During the surgery, the cardiologist takes a blood vessel from another part of your body (usually your leg or arm) and uses it to make a new pathway for blood to flow around a blocked artery. 

Where to get help 

  • Always dial Triple Zero (000) to call an ambulance in a medical emergency 
  • See your GP and/or cardiologist 
  • Phone the Heart Foundation’s Health Information Service on 13 11 12  
  • Ask your doctor, the Heart Foundation’s Helpline, or hospital staff about a cardiac rehabilitation service. 

Read more about heart disease risk factors

WHAT NEXT?

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Cardiac arrest at 33: the challenges of restarting your life

Emma shares her story and opens up about her emotional struggles....

What is angina?

What is angina?

What is angina?

Angina is a type of chest pain or discomfort that’s a symptom of an underlying heart problem, usually coronary heart disease (CHD)....

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Aboriginal heart health

Visit the St Vincents Hospital NSW and Heart Foundation Aboriginal heart health website for more information...

Women and heart disease

Women and heart disease

Women and heart disease

Every day, 22 women lose their lives to this condition....

Learning that heart disease can strike at any age

Learning that heart disease can strike at any age

Learning that heart disease can strike at any age

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

What is atrial fibrillation?

Atrial fibrillation is a type of arrhythmia where your heart beats irregularly and fast....

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Blood pressure and your heart

Understand blood pressure and how it can impact your heart health....

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

Lessons learned: recovering from open heart surgery

After having five open heart surgeries between the ages of 13 and 41, Peter knows a thing or two about recovery....

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

With immediate help a cardiac arrest can be survived. Learn how to save a life....

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Blood cholesterol

Keeping your blood cholesterol at a healthy level can help you reduce your risk of heart disease and other serious conditions. ...

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy – Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack

Fit, active and healthy, Sharon wasn’t expecting a heart attack. However, after experiencing a ‘widow maker’, she counts herself lucky....

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

What is an arrhythmia?

Arrhythmia is a fault in the heart’s electrical system, which affects your heart’s pumping rhythm....

Heart health information in your language

Heart health information in your language

A selection of heart health information brochures in a range languages...

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease....

Medical tests for heart disease

Medical tests for heart disease

Medical tests for heart disease

Learn about the common tests your doctor may want you to have to diagnose your heart condition....

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Heart conditions in women

Like men, women can be diagnosed with a range of heart conditions....

Mental health and heart disease

Mental health and heart disease

Mental health and heart disease

Having a mental health condition can have a negative impact on your heart health and increase your risk of heart disease....

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Heart disease and pregnancy

Pregnancy is often referred to as the “ultimate stress test” for the body....

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

What is heart failure?

Heart failure is a condition where your heart isn’t pumping as well as it should be....

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

What is heart valve disease?

Heart valve disease means that your heart valve or valves don't open or close properly....

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

What is heart disease?

Heart disease is the broad term for conditions that affect the structure and function of the heart muscle. ...

Heart Age Calculator

Heart Age Calculator

Heart Age Calculator

Try our Heart Age Calculator to understand what contributes to your risk of heart disease....

Clinical Guidelines

Clinical Guidelines

Clinical Guidelines

Full list of clinical guidlines and references for CVD, heart failure, ACS, hypertension, atrial fibrillation, SCAD and RHD...

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Support us and help save Australian hearts

Join the fight against Australia’s biggest killer by supporting the Heart Foundation.  ...

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

Are you at risk of heart disease?

There is no single cause for any one heart condition, but there are risk factors that increase your chance of developing one. ...

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Fundraise to save Australian hearts

Join the Heart Foundation community. Together, we can make a real difference for Australian hearts. ...

Support and resources for health care professionals

Support and resources for health care professionals

Support and resources for health care professionals

Our range of clinical and patient support resources are available for you to use in your daily practice....

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation Recovery Support and Resources

Heart Foundation programs and resources to support your recovery....

Key Statistics: Cardiovascular Disease

Key Statistics: Cardiovascular Disease

Key data and statistics about CVD....

COVID-19 info & FAQs

COVID-19 info & FAQs

COVID-19 info & FAQs

Information and FAQs about COVID-19 and heart disease....

Pregnancy and heart disease

Pregnancy and heart disease

Information and resources for health professionals....

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

What is a heart attack?

The most common cause of a heart attack is coronary heart disease....

Fats, oils and heart health

Fats, oils and heart health

Fats, oils and heart health

Get the right balance of healthy fats in your diet ...

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

What is cardiac rehab?

Cardiac rehab is proven to keep you out of hospital and reduce your risk of death from heart conditions....

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) clinical resources

Atrial Fibrillation (AF) clinical resources

Resources and clinical information for health professionals...

Seafood recipes

Seafood recipes

Seafood recipes

Find heart healthy seafood recipes...

From diagnosis at 37 to heart surgery, rehab and now

From diagnosis at 37 to heart surgery, rehab and now

From diagnosis at 37 to heart surgery, rehab and now

Claude Lam, Open heart surgery survivor...

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

What is a cardiac arrest?

With immediate help a cardiac arrest can be survived. Learn how to save a life....

How to volunteer with us

How to volunteer with us

How to volunteer with us

Join our volunteers and make a difference to the heart health of Australians....

Research funding programs

Research funding programs

Research funding programs

The Heart Foundation supports outstanding researchers who share our vision of an Australia free from heart disease. ...

Kylie defied the heart attack stereotypes

Kylie defied the heart attack stereotypes

Kylie defied the heart attack stereotypes

Cardiac rehabilitation was a turning point for Kylie and essential to her heart failure recovery....

Acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

Acute rheumatic fever and rheumatic heart disease

The Australian Guideline for Prevention, Diagnosis and Management of Acute Rheumatic Fever and Rheumatic Heart Disease (2nd Edition)​....

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Lunch recipes

Search our lunch recipe ideas...

Types of physical activity

Types of physical activity

Types of physical activity

Nine out of 10 Australians could reduce the risk of heart disease by walking as little as 15 minutes more each day....

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

Fruit, vegetables and heart health

How to boost your fruit and vegetable intake to help protect your heart. ...

For professionals: Heart Health Checks

For professionals: Heart Health Checks

Heart Health Checks have been supported by Medicare since April 2019....

Hypertension clinical information and guidelines

Hypertension clinical information and guidelines

Clinical information for diagnosis and management of hypertension....

Our research stories

Our research stories

Our research stories

We fund amazing researchers who have important stories to tell...

Returning to work after a heart attack

Returning to work after a heart attack

Returning to work after a heart attack

Discover how to plan for your return to work....

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Heart attack recovery – quit smoking

Smoking is a major risk factor for heart disease. Get the facts on quitting and how it can help you recover. ...

Vegetarian recipes

Vegetarian recipes

Vegetarian recipes

Search through our vegetarian recipes...