What is heart failure?
Your heart pumps blood to carry oxygen and nutrients to the rest of your body. Heart failure is when your heart doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. It doesn’t mean your heart has stopped (that's called cardiac arrest Cardiac Arrest and CPR Cardiac arrest is when the heart stops pumping blood and oxygen to the brain and other organs and tissues. Sometimes a person can be revived after cardiac arrest, particularly if treatment is... read more ).
If you have heart failure, your heart pumps less blood
That causes fluid to back up in your lungs and other body parts
Extra fluid in your lungs makes it hard to breathe
Extra fluid in your legs makes them swell
If your kidneys don’t get enough blood, they make less urine so the body has more fluid
That extra fluid makes your heart work even harder
Then, your heart failure can get even worse
The extra fluid in your body is called “congestion.” That’s why heart failure is sometimes called “congestive heart failure.”
Who can have heart failure?
Anyone can have heart failure, even young children (especially children born with a heart defect). However, it’s much more common in older people, because:
Older people are more likely to have other heart problems that can cause heart failure
Older people are more likely to have high blood pressure High Blood Pressure Each heart beat pushes blood through your arteries. Arteries are the blood vessels that carry blood from your heart to your body. Blood pressure is the pressure of blood in your arteries. Without... read more and diabetes Diabetes Diabetes is a disease in which your blood sugar (glucose) levels are too high. You get diabetes if your body's normal way of controlling blood sugar isn't working right. There are 2 types of... read more , which can lead to heart failure
The heart's walls stiffen with age
What causes heart failure?
Any problem that makes your heart weak or stiff can cause heart failure. Common examples of such problems are:
Coronary artery disease Overview of Coronary Artery Disease (CAD) The heart is a muscle that pumps blood. Like all muscles, the heart needs a steady supply of blood to work. Blood that pumps through the heart doesn't feed the heart muscle. Instead the heart... read more (blocks the blood supply to your heart muscle)
Heart valve problems Overview of Heart Valve Disorders Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood through your body. Your heart has four chambers. The atria are the two upper chambers in your heart—the right atrium and the left atrium. The ventricles... read more (leaky or blocked valves make it hard to pump blood)
Other problems that can cause heart failure are an irregular heart rhythm Overview of Abnormal Heart Rhythms Your heart is a muscle that pumps blood through your body. Your heart rate is how fast your heart beats. Your heart should always have a regular, rhythmic beat, like the ticking of a clock.... read more , low number of red blood cells (anemia Overview of Anemia Anemia is not having enough red blood cells or hemoglobin. Red blood cells carry oxygen from your lungs to all of your other organs. Hemoglobin is the substance inside your red blood cells that... read more ), thyroid gland Overview of the Thyroid Gland Your thyroid is a gland below the Adam’s apple in the front of your neck. Glands make and release hormones. Hormones stimulate other cells or tissues into action. The thyroid makes thyroid hormones... read more problems, and heart muscle infections.
Most disorders cause heart failure only after many years. However, some disorders, such as a major heart attack Heart Attack A heart attack is when blood flow to part of your heart is suddenly blocked and some of your heart muscle dies. Doctors use the term myocardial infarction to refer to a heart attack. Myocardium... read more , can cause heart failure quickly.
Often, a person’s heart failure has more than one cause.
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
Feeling like you can’t catch your breath, which worsens when you lie flat
Feeling tired all over
Swelling in your feet, ankles, and legs
Symptoms usually develop slowly. At first you may feel out of breath only when you climb stairs and notice only a little leg swelling at the end of the day. Later, you may feel out of breath or tired when you do ordinary activities. When heart failure is severe, you may be out of breath even sitting in a chair and have a lot of leg swelling all the time.
Heart failure can shorten your life, especially when it's severe. Treatment can help you live longer.
How can doctors tell if I have heart failure?
Doctors first suspect heart failure based on your symptoms. To make sure they’re right, they’ll do a physical exam, a chest x-ray Plain X-Rays A plain x-ray is an imaging test that takes a picture of the inside of your body. It uses a low dose of x-ray radiation. X-rays show body parts according to how dense (solid) they are. Doctors... read more , and tests to tell how well your heart is working. Common heart function tests are:
Electrocardiography Electrocardiography Electrocardiography is a test that measures your heart’s electrical activity. It's quick, painless, and harmless. The results of that test are shown in an electrocardiogram. It looks like a... read more (ECG/EKG): A quick, painless, and harmless test that measures your heart’s electrical function
Echocardiography Echocardiography and Other Ultrasound Procedures Echocardiography can be used to detect abnormalities in heart wall motion and to measure the volume of blood being pumped from the heart with each beat. This procedure can also detect abnormalities... read more (also called an echo): A type of ultrasound that uses sound waves to create a video that shows how well your heart is pumping and how well your heart’s valves are working
Can my doctor treat my heart failure?
Yes. Although you may have to live with heart failure for the rest of your life, treatment can improve and prolong your life. Treatment usually involves treating the disorder that's causing your heart failure, taking medicines, and making changes to your lifestyle.
What types of medicines can treat heart failure?
Many different types of medicines help treat heart failure. Some of the more common types are:
ACE inhibitors: Widen your blood vessels to lower blood pressure so your heart doesn't have to work as hard, and help your kidneys get rid of extra water
Beta-blockers: Slow your heart rate so your heart doesn't have to work as hard, and can help a stiff heart relax so it fills with blood better
Diuretics (water pills): Help your kidneys get rid of the extra water by making you urinate more
If you have very bad heart failure that isn’t responding to medicines, doctors may suggest a heart transplant or a mechanical device that helps pump blood.
What can I do if I have heart failure?
Try to be more comfortable
Raise up your legs when sitting down
Sleep with several pillows under your head to make it easier to breathe
Manage your medicines
Remember to take your medicines
Always check with your doctor before taking any new medicine, even those you buy over-the-counter at the drug store
Keep in touch with your doctor or health care team
Weigh yourself every day (use the same scale at the same time of day while wearing a similar amount of clothing) and write down your weight so you know if you're retaining too much fluid
Pay attention to your symptoms each day
If your weight increases by more than a few pounds or your symptoms start to get worse, let your health care team know
Have a healthy lifestyle
Cut down on salt by not eating salty foods and snacks and not adding salt to food on your plate or when cooking
Stay as active as you can, even if you can’t work up a sweat
Lose weight, if you're overweight
Stop smoking and stop drinking alcohol
Get a flu shot each year
How can I prevent heart failure?
Follow your doctor's advice on treating health problems that can cause heart failure before they lead to heart failure.