Heart Failure

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 fainting episodes.
  • 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 regular basis
  • 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 doctor's advice.

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 function.

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 instead.

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 "normal" life?

This depends on a number of things: how old is the patient? How severe is the heart failure? What is the underlying cause?

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.

Reviewed: December 12, 2006