Atherosclerosis is characterized by hypertrophy of the vascular media, intimal thickening and lipid-containing plaques. Atherosclerosis is a progressive systemic vascular disease which leads to impaired tissue perfusion due to vascular obstruction. In advanced stages it is often complicated by thrombosis. Recent research demonstrates that atherosclerosis is also a functional disease. In atherosclerosis and hypercholesterolemia, normal vasodilatation is impaired due to endothelial dysfunction. In addition, the ability of the vessel wall to reject adhering and aggregating platelets is deteriorated. Endothelial dysfunction in atherosclerosis is characterized by impaired formation of nitric oxide (NO), formerly known as endothelium-derived relaxing factor (EDRF). NO is continuously formed in the vascular endothelium and promotes tissue perfusion by relaxation of vascular smooth muscle. Endogenously formed NO may also protect against foam cell formation and media hypertrophy, i.e. against the structural component of atherosclerosis. In patients with ischaemic heart disease, the endothelial dysfunction leads to decreased ability to dilate the coronary vessels in response to several forms of physiological stimuli. Endothelial dysfunction in atherosclerosis is reversed by lipid-lowering therapeutic interventions.