Skip to Content
Home > Health Library > Heart Failure
View Additional Content In This Section
Heart failure means that your heart muscle doesn't
pump as much blood as your body needs. Failure doesn't mean that your heart
has stopped. It means that your heart is not pumping as well as it
Because your heart cannot pump well, your body tries to
make up for it. To do this:
Your body has an amazing ability to make up for heart
failure. It may do such a good job that you don't know you have a disease. But
at some point, your heart and body will no longer be able
to keep up. Then fluid starts to build up in your body, and you have symptoms
like feeling weak and out of breath.
This fluid buildup is called
congestion. It's why some doctors call the disease congestive heart failure.
Heart failure usually gets worse over time. But treatment can
slow the disease and help you feel better and live longer.
Anything that damages
your heart or affects how well it pumps can lead to heart failure. Common causes of heart failure are:
Other conditions that can lead to heart failure
Symptoms of heart failure
start to happen when your heart cannot pump enough blood to the rest of your
body. In the early stages, you may:
As heart failure gets worse, fluid starts to build up in
your lungs and other parts of your body. This may cause you to:
If your symptoms suddenly get worse, you will need
Your doctor may
diagnose heart failure based on your symptoms and a physical exam. But you will
need tests to find the cause and type of heart failure so that you can get the
right treatment. These tests may include:
An echocardiogram is the best and
simplest way to find out if you have heart failure, what type it is, and what
is causing it. Your doctor can also use it to see if your heart failure is
This test can measure how much blood your heart pumps to your body.
This measurement is called the
ejection fraction. If your ejection fraction gets
lower and you are having more symptoms, it means that your
heart failure is getting worse.
Most people with heart failure need to take several
medicines. Your doctor may prescribe medicines to:
It is very important to take your medicines exactly as
your doctor tells you to. If you don't, your heart failure could get worse.
You might need to have a pacemaker or a defibrillator if you have a
problem with your heart rhythm. These help your heart keep a steady
Lifestyle changes are an important part of treatment.
They can help slow down heart failure. They may also help control other
diseases that make heart failure worse, such as high blood pressure, diabetes,
and coronary artery disease.
The best steps you can take are to:
To stay as healthy as possible, work closely with your
doctor. Have all your tests, and go to all your appointments. It is also
Medicines and lifestyle changes can slow or even reverse heart failure
for some people. But heart failure often gets worse over time.
Early on, your symptoms may not be too bad. As heart failure
gets worse, you may need to limit your activities.
Treatment can often help reduce symptoms, but it usually doesn't get rid of
Heart failure can also lead to other health problems. These
Your doctor may be able to give you medicine or other
treatment to prevent or treat these problems.
Heart failure can
get worse suddenly. If this happens, you will need emergency care. To prevent
sudden heart failure, you need to avoid things that
can trigger it. These include eating too much salt, missing a dose of your
medicine, and exercising too hard.
Knowing that your health may get worse can be hard. It
is normal to sometimes feel sad or hopeless. But if these feelings last, talk
to your doctor. Antidepressant medicines, counseling, or
both may help you cope.
Health Tools help you make wise health decisions or take action to improve your health.
Learning about heart failure:
Living with heart failure:
Heart failure can be caused by any problem that damages your heart or affects how well it works.
such as too much sodium or not taking medicines the right way, may
suddenly make heart failure worse. This can sometimes cause deadly
problems such as
pulmonary edema or
At first you may not have any
symptoms from heart failure. For a while, your heart and body can make up for heart failure. For example, your heart can pump faster and pump more blood with each beat. This is called compensation.
But as your heart has more
trouble pumping enough blood to your body, you will likely have symptoms. These symptoms may get worse or change if your heart failure gets worse.
Symptoms of heart failure
start to happen when your heart can't pump enough blood to the rest of your
body. In the early stages, you may:
Heart failure is grouped—or
classified—according to symptoms.
Your treatment is based partly on what class of symptoms you
There's also another way to define heart failure.
It's based on the
stages you might go through as your heart failure gets
worse. Your doctor also may make treatment choices based on your stage of heart
Sometimes your symptoms may get worse very quickly. This is
called sudden heart failure. It causes fluid to build up in your lungs, causing
congestion. (This is why the problem is often called congestive heart
failure.) Symptoms may include:
Sudden heart failure is an emergency.
You need care right away.
Your risk for having heart failure is higher if you have certain risk factors. A risk factor is anything that increases your chance of having a particular problem.
is usually caused by another health problem, often
coronary artery disease or high blood pressure. So anything that
increases your risk for one of those problems also increases your risk for
The risk of heart failure
rises as a person gets older.
Call 911 or other emergency services right away if you have:
Call your doctor right away if you have a pacemaker or ICD and think you have an infection near the device. Signs of an infection include:
Call your doctor soon if you have symptoms of
heart failure, which include:
Call your doctor soon if:
Many different types of doctors and nurses can treat you for heart failure, including your family doctor.
Heart failure is a complex
problem. So you will likely have
several different tests over time. These tests can:
If you have symptoms that suggest heart failure,
you may have:
echocardiogram is the best and simplest way to
diagnose heart failure. It also can help guide
Sometimes, because of a person's weight,
breast size, or severe lung disease, an echocardiogram might not be accurate.
If that happens, a
cardiac blood pool scan may be done
instead. It checks how well the left ventricle is
pumping. But it's not as good at finding
heart valve disease and a thick
Tests also may be done to find areas of the heart that are not getting enough blood. These tests include:
When you're taking medicine for heart failure, you may have regular blood tests to check how the medicine is working.
Your treatment for
heart failure depends on:
In the early stages of
heart failure, treatment can help your symptoms. It may also prevent
more damage to your heart. Treatment may include:
As part of your ongoing treatment, your doctor will also try to
prevent or treat problems—such as fever,
anemia—that can lead to
sudden heart failure. Treatment may include:
You might take part in a disease management program. These programs include a broad range of services, such as education, home health care, visiting nurses, and rehabilitation.
A very small number of people may have other treatments, including:
If you have other heart problems that may have led to heart failure, you might have treatment for those problems:
heart failure can be fixed if another problem can be corrected, such as
by treating hyperthyroidism.
Because heart failure tends to get worse over
time, it's important to think about what kind of care you would like at the end
of your life. It's also important that your doctor and family know what you
An advance directive is a
legal document that tells doctors how to care for you at
the end of your life. To learn more, see
best way to prevent
heart failure is to have a healthy lifestyle and control existing health problems like high blood pressure and diabetes.
To reduce your risk:
You can feel better when you have heart failure by taking your medicines as directed, having a healthy lifestyle, and avoiding things that make heart failure worse. Know what things you can do every day to stay healthy, what symptoms to watch for, and when to call a doctor.
such as too much salt (sodium) and certain medicines, that can cause sudden
One Man's Story:
"I was having a lot of trouble getting enough sleep. I
was snoring so bad that my wife was sleeping in another room. I'd wake up 7
times a night. Sometimes I'd wake up gasping for breath. The next day I'd be so
tired that I'd fall asleep while doing my woodworking in the garage. And I was
really fuzzy-headed. I couldn't remember anything.
"I thought it
might be my heart failure. So I decided to talk to my doctor about it, and he
suggested a sleep study. I found out that I have sleep apnea. I haven't been
getting enough oxygen because of it. He put me on a CPAP machine at night. I've
used it for the past 4 months.
"It took a little time to get used
to sleeping with a mask. But I'm sleeping much better. Now if I wake up, it's
only once, and I go right back to sleep. I feel so much better during the
This story is based on information gathered from many people living with heart failure.
Many people with heart failure have trouble
sleeping. Your doctor may be able to find out what is causing your
sleep problems and help you get a good night's
Most people with heart failure can
still have an active and safe sex life. Talk with your doctor if you have concerns about having sex.
Unfortunately, sexual problems are common. Your
interest may drop, or you may have shortness of breath or other symptoms that
limit your ability to have sex. Men may have erection
Talk to your doctor. You can get
help for erection problems or other sexual troubles.
It can be rewarding to help a loved one with heart failure. But
it's also a lot of work. And it can be hard emotionally.
If you are taking care of a loved one, make sure that you also take
care of yourself. This can mean taking breaks by getting help from family or
friends. You also may be able to use respite care. These services provide
someone who will stay with your loved one while you get out of the house for a
brings big changes to your life. You may struggle with sadness and worry. You
may wonder if you'll still be able to enjoy your life. Coping with your
feelings and seeking help when you need it can help you live better with heart
Heart failure can be hard on your
emotions. You may feel
depressed that you can't do some of the things you
used to do. You may worry about your future. And symptoms of heart failure,
such as shortness of breath, can make this
These feelings are common.
Talk to your doctor if you have
symptoms of depression or are worried a lot.
Depression and anxiety can be treated with counseling and medicine.
You also can help yourself feel better by
changing your "self-talk." Those are the things you tell yourself about how
you're coping. Negative thoughts can make you feel bad. Changing the way you
think can change the way you feel.
One Woman's Story:
"I would sit at my kitchen table and feel I was in this
cloud of dread. I didn't feel like me. I felt like, 'I'm never going to be me
how Joan got help for depression and anxiety.
For more information, see:
The challenges of living with heart
failure can increase your stress. And stress can make living with heart failure
even harder. Stress also can disturb your sleep and make depression and anxiety
worse. Explore ways to relax and manage stress to help your body, mind, and
Emotional support from friends and family can help you cope with the struggles
of heart failure. You might want to think about joining a heart failure support
group. Ask your doctor about the types of support that are available where you
Meeting other people with the same
problems can help you know you're not alone. If you're shy or aren't a joiner,
you can look at an online support group. Even though people online aren't
talking face-to-face, they're sharing their feelings and creating a
You probably will need to take
several medicines to treat
heart failure, even if you don't
have symptoms yet.
Medicines don't cure heart failure. But
they can help your heart work better and improve symptoms.
It's very important to take your medicines
exactly as your doctor says. If you don't, your heart
failure may get worse or you may get sudden heart failure.
The medicines you take
will depend on the type of heart failure you have. Some of the medicines treat
the heart's pumping problems (systolic heart
failure), while others treat problems with filling (diastolic heart failure). The most commonly used
medicines are listed below.
You also may take other medicines for health problems that can
cause heart failure or for problems caused by heart failure.
Talk to your doctor
before you take any
over-the-counter medicines. Some of them might make
your symptoms worse.
Surgeries for heart failure include:
Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT) uses a biventricular pacemaker, which makes the
heart's lower chambers (ventricles) pump in the right
This type of pacemaker
can help you feel better so you can be more active. It also can help keep you
out of the hospital and help you live longer.
If you get a pacemaker, you have to be careful
not to get too close to some devices with strong magnetic or electrical fields.
MRI machines, battery-powered cordless power tools,
and CB or ham radios. But most everyday appliances are safe.
A pacemaker may be used alone or along
with an implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) for heart
Getting a pacemaker has "made all the difference in the
world. I could work in my yard and walk my dog."—Joyce
how a pacemaker helped Joyce be more active.
Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs) can
prevent sudden death from an abnormal heart rhythm and may help you live
longer. An ICD checks the heart for very fast
and deadly heart rhythms. If the heart goes into one of these
rhythms, the ICD shocks it to stop the deadly rhythm and
returns the heart to a normal rhythm.
If you get an ICD, you have to be careful not
to get too close to some devices with strong magnetic or electrical fields.
MRI machines, battery-powered cordless power tools,
and CB or ham radios. But most everyday appliances are safe.
An ICD may be used alone or along
with a pacemaker for heart failure.
Ventricular assist devices (VADs), also known as heart
pumps, may be placed into the chest to help the heart pump
VADs can keep people alive until
a donor heart is available for transplant. In some cases, VADs may also be used
as an alternative to heart transplant for long-term treatment. VADs are used in people who have severe heart failure.
intra-aortic balloon pump is sometimes
used to help the heart pump more blood during
sudden heart failure.
You may still hear
about supplements that might improve heart failure
symptoms. But no supplement or vitamin has been shown definitely to relieve heart
failure or help you live longer.
Examples include coenzyme Q10, fish oil, and hawthorn.
to your doctor before you take any over-the-counter medicine or
supplement. They are used along with medical treatments for heart failure, not instead of treatment.
As your heart
failure gets worse, you may want to think about
palliative care. It's a kind of
care for people who have illnesses that don't go away and often get worse over
time. It's different than care to cure your illness. But
some people combine both types of care.
If you are interested in palliative care, talk to
your doctor. He or she may be able to manage your care or refer you to a doctor
who specializes in this type of care.
For more information, see
Heart failure tends to get worse over time. So you
need to decide what kind of care you want at the end of your
It can be hard to have talks with your
doctor and family about the end of your life. But making these decisions now
may bring you and your family peace of mind. Your family won't have to wonder
what you want. And you can spend your time focusing on your
You will need to decide if you want
life-support measures if your health gets very bad. An
advance directive is a legal document that
tells doctors how to care for you at the end of your life.
This care includes electronic devices that are used for heart failure, such as pacemakers. You also can say where you want to have care. And you can name
someone who can make sure your wishes are followed.
Visit the American Heart Association (AHA) website for information on
physical activity, diet, and various heart-related conditions. You can search for information on heart disease and stroke, share information with friends and family, and use tools to help you make heart-healthy goals and plans. Contact the AHA to find your
nearest local or state AHA group. The AHA provides brochures and information
about support groups and community programs, including Mended Hearts, a
nationwide organization whose members visit people with heart problems and
provide information and support.
The Heart Failure Society of America provides
information and education for people with heart failure and their families. The
Web site has education modules designed to help people with heart failure,
their loved ones, and individuals at risk to work better with their doctors or
The Heart Rhythm Society provides information for
patients and the public about heart rhythm problems. The website includes a
section that focuses on patient information. This information includes causes,
prevention, tests, treatment, and patient stories about heart rhythm problems.
You can use the Find a Specialist section of the website to search for a heart
rhythm specialist practicing in your area.
HeartHub for Patients is a website from the American Heart
Association. It provides patient-focused information, tools, and resources
about heart diseases and stroke. The site helps you understand and manage your
health. It includes online tools that explain your risks and treatment options.
The site includes articles, the latest news in health and research, videos,
interactive tools, forums and community groups, and e-newsletters.
The website includes health centers that cover heart rhythm problems,
cardiac rehabilitation, caregivers, cholesterol, diabetes, heart attack, heart
failure, high blood pressure, peripheral artery disease, and stroke.
HeartHub for Patients also links to Heart360.org, another American Heart Association
website. Heart360 is a tool that helps you send and receive medical
information with your doctor. It also helps you monitor your health at home. It
gives you access to tools to manage and monitor high blood pressure, diabetes,
high cholesterol, physical activity, and nutrition.
The U.S. National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
(NHLBI) information center offers information and publications about preventing
This website for older adults offers aging-related
health information. The website's senior-friendly features include large
print, simple navigation, and short, easy-to-read segments of information. A
visitor to this website can click special buttons to hear the text aloud, make
the text larger, or turn on higher contrast for easier viewing.
site was developed by the National Institute on Aging and the National
Library of Medicine, both part of the National Institutes of Health
(NIH). NIHSeniorHealth features up-to-date health information from NIH. Also,
the American Geriatrics Society provides independent review of some of the
material found on this website.
U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (2008).
2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (ODPHP
Publication No. U0036). Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Coenzyme Q10 (2006). Medical Letter on Drugs and Therapeutics, 48(1229): 19–20.
Other Works Consulted
Allen LA, et al. (2012). Decision making in advanced heart failure: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 125(15): 1928–1952.
Drugs for treatment of chronic heart failure (2009). Treatment Guidelines From The Medical Letter, 7(83): 53–56.
Hunt SA, et al. (2009). 2009 focused update
incorporated into the ACC/AHA 2005 guidelines for the diagnosis and management
of heart failure in adults. A report of the American College of Cardiology
Foundation/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines.
Circulation, 119(14): e391–e479.
Levine GN, et al. (2012). Sexual activity and cardiovascular disease: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 125(8): 1058–1072.
McKelvie R (2011). Heart failure, search date August 2010. BMJ Clinical Evidence. Available online: http://www.clinicalevidence.com.
Pina IL, et al. (2003). Exercise and heart failure: A
statement from the American Heart Association Committee on Exercise,
Rehabilitation, and Prevention. Circulation, 107(8):
Riegel B, et al. (2009). State of the science. Promoting self-care in patients with heart failure. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 120(12): 1141–1163.
Schocken DD, et al. (2008). Prevention of heart
failure: A scientific statement from the American Heart Association Councils on
Epidemiology and Prevention, Clinical Cardiology, Cardiovascular Nursing, and
High Blood Pressure Research; Quality of Care and Outcomes Research
Interdisciplinary Working Group; and Functional Genomics and Translational
Biology Interdisciplinary Working Group. Circulation,
Smith SC, et al. (2011). AHA/ACCF secondary prevention and risk reduction therapy for patients with coronary and other atherosclerotic vascular disease: 2011 update: A guideline from the American Heart Association and American College of Cardiology Foundation. Circulation, 124(22): 2458–2473.
Somers VK, et al. (2008). Sleep apnea and
cardiovascular disease: An American Heart Association/American College of
Cardiology Foundation Scientific Statement from the American Heart Association
Council for High Blood Pressure Research Professional Education Committee,
Council on Clinical Cardiology, Stroke Council, and Council on Cardiovascular
Nursing in collaboration with the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute
National Center on Sleep Disorders Research (National Institutes of Health).
Circulation, 118(10): 1080–1111.
Weintraub NL, et al. (2010). Acute heart failure syndromes: Emergency department presentation, treatment, and disposition: Current approaches and future aims. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 122(19): 1975–1996.
October 22, 2012
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology & Stephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.
To learn more visit Healthwise.org
© 1995-2013 Healthwise, Incorporated. Healthwise, Healthwise for every health decision, and the Healthwise logo are trademarks of Healthwise, Incorporated.
2650 Siskiyou Blvd., Medford, OR 97504