When you hear the phrase “heart disease,” what springs to mind is probably coronary artery disease—plaque buildup in the arteries of your heart. In reality, “heart disease” isn’t any single disease but a catch-all term that includes a lot of different conditions from coronary artery disease to congestive heart failure and more.
Most of us know that chest pain and pain down one arm might mean we’re having a heart attack. We probably know that sudden weakness on one side of the body could indicate a stroke. But the signs and symptoms of many types of heart problems can be much more subtle. Some are easily overlooked. Some can be mistaken for other conditions.
The issues below fall into this category. They might not be anything to worry about. But depending on the state of your health—and especially if you’re suffering from more than one of them—they just might be a sign that something is going on with your heart.
You tire very easily
We all have days when we just don’t have much energy. And we all have days when climbing three flights of stairs just seems like more work than it’s worth. But if you routinely find yourself exhausted after walking half a block or climbing a flight of stairs, it could mean something more serious than lack of sleep.
Tiring easily like this is one of the most common signs of heart failure. Why? Because your heart simply isn’t pumping as much blood as it should. This means your arms and legs aren’t getting the blood supply—and oxygen—that they need, so you find yourself exhausted by small things.
Your feet or legs swell
There are many reasons your feet can swell, from being pregnant to simply spending too much time sitting down. Having swollen feet can also be a sign of heart failure. It usually goes hand-in-hand with fatigue or shortness of breath, so if you have more than one of these symptoms it might be time to have yourself checked out.
The flesh beneath your nails is very pale or blue-tinted
Blue nails is a cause for serious concern. A blue tint to the flesh under your nails (or to your lips) is a sign that you’re not getting enough oxygen. If you notice this symptom, it’s time to go to the ER.
You have a chronic cough
If you have a chronic cough, odds are that it’s due to allergies or other issues not related to your heart. It can, however, be a symptom of heart failure. Heart failure can cause a buildup of fluid in your lungs. This causes a chronic cough that is worse when you’re lying down and may cause you to cough up froth.
You have a hard time catching your breath
If you’re out of shape and suddenly exert yourself, you might expect to end up huffing and puffing. But if normal activities like walking—or no activities at all—make you feel short of breath, it could mean your heart isn’t pumping properly and there’s not enough oxygen getting to your lungs.
You get pain or cramps in your legs when you walk
It could be nothing, but getting cramps in your hip or leg muscles when you walk can also be a sign of peripheral artery disease or PAD. This is plaque buildup in the arteries of your legs—just like coronary artery disease but in your extremities. And if you have PAD, odds are you have plaque buildup in your coronary arteries too.
You have dizzy spells
There are many, many possible reasons for feeling dizzy, from ear infections to standing up too fast. In most cases dizziness is nothing to worry about, especially if it’s something that only happens once in a blue moon. But if you find yourself feeling dizzy or lightheaded on a regular basis it might be cause for concern. Although medication side effects or inner ear problems are more likely, frequent dizzy spells can be the result of a heart condition.
You can hear your heartbeat when you’re falling asleep
Like most of the other symptoms on this list, hearing your own heartbeat doesn’t necessarily mean anything is wrong. Your heartbeat is actually well within your range of hearing, and the only reason you don’t hear it all the time is because your brain filters the sound out so that it doesn’t drive you crazy. Sometimes, when we’re very tired or stressed, that noise filter slips for a moment. However, if it’s something that happens all the time, it could mean you have a faulty valve which you can hear when things are extremely quiet.
You have heart palpitations
It’s not uncommon for healthy people to have occasional heart palpitations. But they can also mean cardiac arrhythmia—a serious heart condition. If you have frequent palpitations or they occur in conjunction with other symptoms like dizzy spells, it could mean a real problem.
You have sudden vision problems
Sudden vision problems like seeing double, tunnel vision, or blindness in one eye—if you haven’t received a blow to the head or another injury—can be signs of a stroke. Other stroke symptoms include drooping of or inability to move one side of your face, difficulty lifting or moving one arm, and difficulty talking or understanding speech. If you have any of these symptoms, get to the ER immediately and tell them you might be having a stroke. If you are having a stroke, seconds count. A few minutes can be the difference between recovery and lifelong disability.
Most of these symptoms can have perfectly harmless explanations. But if you’re experiencing several of them or they happen on a regular basis, it’s probably time to have your heart checked out.