How soon is sex safe after a heart attack?

For a patient recovering from a heart attack, it can be one of the most difficult questions to ask a doctor: When is it safe to resume a normal sex life? For the first time, the American Heart Association tried to answer those questions Thursday with a new set of guidelines. CBS News medical correspondent Dr. Jon LaPook tells us what they mean.

Kirk Devereux had a common fear after having a heart attack at age 48.

"The fear is you're going to die while you're having sex," he said, "and that would be a horrible thing to happen for both of you, obviously."

Sex poses surprisingly low risk to heart patients

Thursday's guidelines from the American Heart Association are designed to ease those fears. Key points include:

  • Most patients can resume having sex if they can walk up two flights of stairs or walk briskly without a problem.
  • Patients with cardiac symptoms like chest pain after minimal activity should not resume sex until symptoms are under control
  • After a heart attack, the risk of death or another heart attack after sex is low, only 2 to 3 per 100,000

"I think a lot of times it's on people's minds, but they don't actually verbalize it," said cardiologist Dr. Tara Narula of Lenox Hill Hospital. She said patients are afraid to bring up the subject.

"I want them to understand that they should feel free to communicate about this. I think that's the biggest thing is breaking down the communication barrier because that way, there's a free dialogue between the physician and patient."

Five years after his heart attack, Kirk Devereux married his girlfriend Livia, who has helped him deal with his fears.

"For both of us, there was still that fear in the background," he said. "It fades. It fades and you start feeling better."

These are general guidelines. It's crucial that patients undergo thorough evaluation to help determine their specific individual risk.

  • Jonathan LaPook

    Dr. Jonathan LaPook is the chief medical correspondent for the CBS Evening News. Follow him on Twitter at @DrLaPook