What is heart failure?
The term heart failure (or congestive
heart failure) is slightly misleading, as it doesn't necessarily mean that the
heart has "failed". Instead it is a term that is used to describe a
heart that is not working adequately. It cannot meet the body's need for blood
because it isn't pumping properly.
The main consequences of this are
accumulation of fluid in the lungs or other tissues, as the blood becomes
congested and cannot be pumped around the body fast enough. This accumulation
of fluid may cause difficulty in breathing or swelling of the legs.
Heart failure is often the end stage of
another form of heart disease, such as atherosclerosis (hardening of the
artery) or cardiomyopathy (disorder of the heart muscle). Anything that puts a
strain on the heart – such as obesity, a severe lung infection or an infection
of the heart lining or valves – can also lead to heart failure.
What are the symptoms of heart failure?
One of the first symptoms of heart failure
is fatigue. Other symptoms include:
- Shortness of breath. This may begin as
breathing difficulties during periods of exertion, but may extend to times of
rest also. As fluid accumulates in the lungs, patients may have to sleep
propped up on a pillow as this can make breathing easier.
- Fluid may accumulate in the feet and
ankles, causing them to swell.
- A person may notice a significant weight
gain, even over the course of a few days. This is due to the accumulation of
fluid in the body.
- A person may experience dizziness or
- Due to fluid accumulation in the lungs,
the person may have an irritable, persistent cough. Their sputum (saliva mixed
with mucus) may appear frothy.
- Congestive heart failure may affect both
sides of the heart, or it may affect only one side. In such cases, symptoms may
depend on which side is affected. For example if it is the left side, symptoms
will usually include breathing difficulties. If it is the right side, leg
swelling and abdominal discomfort are the more likely symptoms.
What can I do to prevent heart failure?
In order to prevent heart failure, you
must aim to prevent the different forms of heart disease that lead to it. There
are a number of ways in which you can help to do this:
- Don't smoke
- Maintain a healthy and varied diet, avoiding
saturated fats and salt
- If you drink, do so in moderation
- Have your cholesterol level checked on a
- Take part in regular exercise
- Try to maintain your correct body weight
- If you have a condition that can affect
the heart such as hypertension (high blood pressure), ensure you follow your
My father has just been diagnosed with
heart failure. What can be done to help him?
He may be given medication to help get rid
of excess fluid – these are called diuretics. This can help ease symptoms while
improving the muscle function of the heart. He may also be given other types of
medication – such as ACE inhibitors and Beta Blockers, to improve heart
He will be put on a diet of strict salt
restriction. This is because salt consumption results in fluid retention. This
is not as easy as it sounds because salt is used in a huge number of foods as a
preservative, for example, processed and convenience foods have a high salt
content so these will have to be avoided. Using salt as a seasoning will also
have to be avoided. Alternatives such as pepper or fresh herbs can be used
If he drinks alcohol, check with your
doctor. While drinking in moderation is usually alright, in some cases it is
better to avoid it altogether.
Some activity is recommended. While he
obviously shouldn't do anything too strenuous, being out of condition will
place added stress on his heart. Have your doctor recommend activities. Walking
and swimming are good ones for this type of condition. Using weights is not advised.
Can somebody with heart failure lead a
This depends on a number of things: how
old is the patient? How severe is the heart failure? What is the underlying
If heart failures develops suddenly and
has a treatable underlying cause, with treatment, some patients may return to
normal heart function.
Even if the heart failure is the result of
a long-standing disease, with the right treatment, many people can live for
many more years. Therefore while it may be necessary to make some lifestyle
changes, a person with heart failure often can still lead a productive life.
Visit the irishhealth.com Heart Disease Clinic.