Heart Failure

ExitCare ImageHeart failure is a condition in which the heart has trouble pumping blood. This means your heart does not pump blood efficiently for your body to work well. In some cases of heart failure, fluid may back up into your lungs or you may have swelling (edema) in your lower legs. Heart failure is usually a long-term (chronic) condition. It is important for you to take good care of yourself and follow your caregiver's treatment plan.


Some health conditions can cause heart failure. Those health conditions include:

  • High blood pressure (hypertension) causes the heart muscle to work harder than normal. When pressure in the blood vessels is high, the heart needs to pump (contract) with more force in order to circulate blood throughout the body. High blood pressure eventually causes the heart to become stiff and weak.

  • Coronary artery disease (CAD) is the buildup of cholesterol and fat (plaque) in the arteries of the heart. The blockage in the arteries deprives the heart muscle of oxygen and blood. This can cause chest pain and may lead to a heart attack. High blood pressure can also contribute to CAD.

  • Heart attack (myocardial infarction) occurs when 1 or more arteries in the heart become blocked. The loss of oxygen damages the muscle tissue of the heart. When this happens, part of the heart muscle dies. The injured tissue does not contract as well and weakens the heart's ability to pump blood.

  • Abnormal heart valves can cause heart failure when the heart valves do not open and close properly. This makes the heart muscle pump harder to keep the blood flowing.

  • Heart muscle disease (cardiomyopathy or myocarditis) is damage to the heart muscle from a variety of causes. These can include drug or alcohol abuse, infections, or unknown reasons. These can increase the risk of heart failure.

  • Lung disease makes the heart work harder because the lungs do not work properly. This can cause a strain on the heart, leading it to fail.

  • Diabetes increases the risk of heart failure. High blood sugar contributes to high fat (lipid) levels in the blood. Diabetes can also cause slow damage to tiny blood vessels that carry important nutrients to the heart muscle. When the heart does not get enough oxygen and food, it can cause the heart to become weak and stiff. This leads to a heart that does not contract efficiently.

  • Other conditions can contribute to heart failure. These include abnormal heart rhythms, thyroid problems, and low blood counts (anemia).

Certain unhealthy behaviors can increase the risk of heart failure. Those unhealthy behaviors include:

  • Being overweight.

  • Smoking or chewing tobacco.

  • Eating foods high in fat and cholesterol.

  • Abusing illicit drugs or alcohol.

  • Lacking physical activity.


Heart failure symptoms may vary and can be hard to detect. Symptoms may include:

  • Shortness of breath with activity, such as climbing stairs.

  • Persistent cough.

  • Swelling of the feet, ankles, legs, or abdomen.

  • Unexplained weight gain.

  • Difficulty breathing when lying flat (orthopnea).

  • Waking from sleep because of the need to sit up and get more air.

  • Rapid heartbeat.

  • Fatigue and loss of energy.

  • Feeling lightheaded, dizzy, or close to fainting.

  • Loss of appetite.

  • Nausea.

  • Increased urination during the night (nocturia).


A diagnosis of heart failure is based on your history, symptoms, physical examination, and diagnostic tests.

Diagnostic tests for heart failure may include:

  • Echocardiography.

  • Electrocardiography.

  • Chest X-ray.

  • Blood tests.

  • Exercise stress test.

  • Cardiac angiography.

  • Radionuclide scans.


Treatment is aimed at managing the symptoms of heart failure. Medicines, behavioral changes, or surgical intervention may be necessary to treat heart failure.

  • Medicines to help treat heart failure may include:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors. This type of medicine blocks the effects of a blood protein called angiotensin-converting enzyme. ACE inhibitors relax (dilate) the blood vessels and help lower blood pressure.

  • Angiotensin receptor blockers. This type of medicine blocks the actions of a blood protein called angiotensin. Angiotensin receptor blockers dilate the blood vessels and help lower blood pressure.

  • Water pills (diuretics). Diuretics cause the kidneys to remove salt and water from the blood. The extra fluid is removed through urination. This loss of extra fluid lowers the volume of blood the heart pumps.

  • Beta blockers. These prevent the heart from beating too fast and improve heart muscle strength.

  • Digitalis. This increases the force of the heartbeat.

  • Healthy behavior changes include:

  • Obtaining and maintaining a healthy weight.

  • Stopping smoking or chewing tobacco.

  • Eating heart healthy foods.

  • Limiting or avoiding alcohol.

  • Stopping illicit drug use.

  • Physical activity as directed by your caregiver.

  • Surgical treatment for heart failure may include:

  • A procedure to open blocked arteries, repair damaged heart valves, or remove damaged heart muscle tissue.

  • A pacemaker to improve heart muscle function and control certain abnormal heart rhythms.

  • An internal cardioverter defibrillator to treat certain serious abnormal heart rhythms.

  • A left ventricular assist device to assist the pumping ability of the heart.


  • Take your medicine as directed by your caregiver. Medicines are important in reducing the workload of your heart, slowing the progression of heart failure, and improving your symptoms.

  • Do not stop taking your medicine unless directed by your caregiver.

  • Do not skip any dose of medicine.

  • Refill your prescriptions before you run out of medicine. Your medicines are needed every day.

  • Take over-the-counter medicine only as directed by your caregiver or pharmacist.

  • Engage in moderate physical activity if directed by your caregiver. Moderate physical activity can benefit some people. The elderly and people with severe heart failure should consult with a caregiver for physical activity recommendations.

  • Eat heart healthy foods. Food choices should be free of trans fat and low in saturated fat, cholesterol, and salt (sodium). Healthy choices include fresh or frozen fruits and vegetables, fish, lean meats, legumes, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, and whole grain or high fiber foods. Talk to a dietitian to learn more about heart healthy foods.

  • Limit sodium if directed by your caregiver. Sodium restriction may reduce symptoms of heart failure in some people. Talk to a dietitian to learn more about heart healthy seasonings.

  • Use healthy cooking methods. Healthy cooking methods include roasting, grilling, broiling, baking, poaching, steaming, or stir-frying. Talk to a dietitian to learn more about healthy cooking methods.

  • Limit fluids if directed by your caregiver. Fluid restriction may reduce symptoms of heart failure in some people.

  • Weigh yourself every day. Daily weights are important in the early recognition of excess fluid. You should weigh yourself every morning after you urinate and before you eat breakfast. Wear the same amount of clothing each time you weigh yourself. Record your daily weight. Provide your caregiver with your weight record.

  • Monitor and record your blood pressure if directed by your caregiver.

  • Check your pulse if directed by your caregiver.

  • Lose weight if directed by your caregiver. Weight loss may reduce symptoms of heart failure in some people.

  • Stop smoking or chewing tobacco. Nicotine makes your heart work harder by causing your blood vessels to constrict. Do not use nicotine gum or patches before talking to your caregiver.

  • Schedule and attend follow-up visits as directed by your caregiver. It is important to keep all your appointments.

  • Limit alcohol intake to no more than 1 drink per day for nonpregnant women and 2 drinks per day for men. Drinking more than that is harmful to your heart. Tell your caregiver if you drink alcohol several times a week. Talk with your caregiver about whether alcohol is safe for you. If your heart has already been damaged by alcohol or you have severe heart failure, drinking alcohol should be stopped completely.

  • Stop illicit drug use.

  • Stay up-to-date with immunizations. It is especially important to prevent respiratory infections through current pneumococcal and influenza immunizations.

  • Manage other health conditions such as hypertension, diabetes, thyroid disease, or abnormal heart rhythms as directed by your caregiver.

  • Learn to manage stress.

  • Plan rest periods when fatigued.

  • Learn strategies to manage high temperatures. If the weather is extremely hot:

  • Avoid vigorous physical activity.

  • Use air conditioning or fans or seek a cooler location.

  • Avoid caffeine and alcohol.

  • Wear loose-fitting, lightweight, and light-colored clothing.

  • Learn strategies to manage cold temperatures. If the weather is extremely cold:

  • Avoid vigorous physical activity.

  • Layer clothes.

  • Wear mittens or gloves, a hat, and a scarf when going outside.

  • Avoid alcohol.

  • Obtain ongoing education and support as needed.

  • Participate or seek rehabilitation as needed to maintain or improve independence and quality of life.


  • Your weight increases by 03 lb/1.4 kg in 1 day or 05 lb/2.3 kg in a week.

  • You have increasing shortness of breath that is unusual for you.

  • You are unable to participate in your usual physical activities.

  • You tire easily.

  • You cough more than normal, especially with physical activity.

  • You have any or more swelling in areas such as your hands, feet, ankles, or abdomen.

  • You are unable to sleep because it is hard to breathe.

  • You feel like your heart is beating fast (palpitations).

  • You become dizzy or lightheaded upon standing up.


  • You have difficulty breathing.

  • There is a change in mental status such as decreased alertness or difficulty with concentration.

  • You have a pain or discomfort in your chest.

  • You have an episode of fainting (syncope).


  • Understand these instructions.

  • Will watch your condition.

  • Will get help right away if you are not doing well or get worse.