When enjoying a sexual tryst, a heart attack is the last thing on a partner’s mind. But when sensational stories about older male lovers being found dead after sex dominate the airwaves, the question has to be asked. Can sex lead to sudden heart attacks?
Studies show that postcoital heart attacks cause less than 1% of sudden deaths. The risk is higher for older men. Other factors such as gender, physical exertion, and medication increase the risk.
Symptoms of a postcoital heart attack
The symptoms are similar to cardiac arrest. However, they may be difficult to spot right after or during sex. These include loss of breath, sweating, and a faster pulse. The main symptoms of a heart attack are:
- Chest pains, discomfort, pressure, squeezing, or fullness
- A cold sweat
- Pain in both arms, stomach, back, jaw, and neck
A heart attack happens when one part of the heart doesn’t receive enough blood due to a blockage in the arteries. This can be because of plaque buildup or when the blood vessel contracts, spasms, or flow is restricted. A heart attack can also happen when an artery tears and blood flows into the vessel wars. However, this is extremely rare.
It’s important to note that a heart attack is different from cardiac arrest. This is when the heart suddenly stops beating because of irregular heart rhythms, known as arrhythmia. The most commonly occurring arrhythmia leading to cardiac arrest is ventricular fibrillation. This is when the lower heart chambers beat irregularly and stop pumping blood.
Sex can lead to a heart attack due to physical exertion and emotional excitement. This is because sex increases the heart rate, breathing, and blood pressure, which can increase the stress on the heart.
Having pre-existing conditions can increase the risk of a postcoital heart attack. This includes coronary artery disease, arrhythmia, cardiomyopathy, or heart malformations. Smoking, excessive alcohol intake, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, sleep apnea, metabolic syndrome, stress, preeclampsia, or a previously occurring heart attack increase the risk of a heart attack.
Prescription drugs to treat erectile dysfunction and low libido can increase the risk of a heart attack after sex. Stimulant narcotics such as cocaine or mixing prescription drugs with recreational ones can also increase the risk.
Multiple studies also found that the risk increases as people become older. Sudden death after sex occurred mostly among men over 59 years. Further research found that it happens during or within an hour of sexual activity. It can also happen to women, and men around 38 years old. However, postcoital heart attack rates are extremely low, even among people with pre-existing heart conditions.
There is no absolute risk that sex increases the risk of a heart attack. Research shows that men aged 50 who exercise regularly have a one in a million chance of a heart attack per hour. Sex increases that risk to 3 in a million per hour. As a physical activity, sex isn’t as demanding as physical exercise or sport. Adding it to your routine can increase your general health. This is due to the release of hormones such as dopamine, and adrenaline, which help stabilise mood and reduces the symptoms of depression.
How to reduce the risk of postcoital heart attack
While the risk is relatively low, you still don’t want the worry of your heart stopping during sex. However, the measures you can take to alleviate these anxieties are similar to those taken to improve heart health.
Stop smoking, taking too much sugar or alcohol. You can also eat lean red meat a few times a week and focus more on white meat, vegetables, legumes, and fruits. Regular exercise also improves heart health. Constantly monitor your stress levels. You can also avoid taking stimulant drugs before sex. If you feel woozy or get piercing upper body pain during sex, stop immediately and seek help.
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Early treatment of a postcoital heart attack includes removing plaque from blood vessels. This improves heart health. However, emergency treatment includes aspirin which prevents more clots, nitrates to increase the size of blood vessels, and clot-buster medications to reduce blood clots.
If the heart stops, first responders must perform CPR or defibrillators to get the heart to beat again. Some medical procedures can also restore blood flow, such as percutaneous coronary intervention (PCI), which includes the surgical insertion of a catheter to open blood vessels. Doctors can also add a stent to restore blood flow. Finally, doctors can also perform coronary artery bypass grafting, which is a procedure that doctors use to fix blocked or narrowed blood vessels.
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