Heart Failure

What is Heart Failure?

Heart failure (or congestive heart failure) is a serious condition where the heart has difficulty pumping enough blood around the body. It occurs when the heart muscle becomes too weak or stiff to pump blood effectively.

Heart failure can be ongoing (chronic) or may start suddenly (acute).

What types of heart failure are there?

The four types of heart failure include:

  1. Left-sided heart failure (a fluid build-up in your lungs causing shortness of breath)
  2. Right-sided heart failure (a fluid build-up in your abdomen, legs and feet causing swelling)
  3. Systolic heart failure (a pumping problem affecting the left ventricle)
  4. Diastolic heart failure (a filling problem as the left ventricle cannot relax or fill fully)

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

Signs/symptoms of heart failure may include:

  • Shortness of breath during activity or at rest
  • Fatigue
  • Weakness
  • Swelling in your legs, ankles and feet
  • Rapid or irregular heartbeat
  • Reduced ability to exercise
  • Persistent coughing or wheezing, with blood-tinged phlegm
  • Increased need to urinate at night
  • Abdomen swelling
  • Sudden weight gain from fluid retention
  • Lack of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath
  • Chest pain (if your heart failure is caused by a heart attack)

What are the causes of heart failure?

Heart failure generally develops after other conditions have damaged or weakened your heart. However, sometimes heart failure can occur suddenly if the heart muscle becomes too stiff. The following conditions can damage or weaken your heart and can lead to heart failure:

How is heart failure diagnosed?

To diagnose heart failure, your doctor will discuss your medical history, review your symptoms, check for risk factors and may perform a physical examination. These can include:

  • Using a stethoscope to listen for signs of congestion or abnormal heart sounds
  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • Echocardiogram
  • Stress test
  • Cardiac computerized tomography (CT) scan or magnetic resonance imaging (MRI)
  • Coronary angiogram
  • Myocardial biopsy

How is heart failure treated?

In the majority of cases, heart failure is a chronic disease that needs ongoing treatment in order to help you live longer and reduce your chance of sudden death.

In some rare cases, doctors may be able to reverse heart failure by treating the underlying cause, like repairing a heart valve or managing a heart rhythm.

The common treatments to help reduce symptoms of heart failure include:

Medications for heart failure

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors
  • Angiotensin II receptor blockers
  • Beta blockers
  • Diuretics
  • Aldosterone antagonists
  • Intropes
  • Digoxin (Lanoxin)

Surgical and medical devices for heart failure

  • Coronary bypass surgery
  • Heart valve repair or replacement
  • Implantable cardioverter-defibrillators (ICDs)
  • Cardiac resynchronization therapy (CRT), or biventricular pacing
  • Heart pumps

If your heart failure becomes too severe the only option may be a heart transplant. Heart transplants can dramatically improve your quality and length of life. If the operation is successful and your body accepts the new organ, patients need to be on lifelong anti-rejection medication and must live a healthy life post-surgery. 

How can heart failure be prevented?

Making lifestyle changes to reduce or eliminate the risk factors, is the best way to prevent heart failure. These include:

  • Quit smoking
  • Control medical conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, obesity
  • Eat a healthy diet
  • Maintain a healthy weight
  • Stay physically active
  • Reduce or manage stress levels
  • Restrict your salt intake
  • Monitor your blood cholesterol
  • Reduce sugar intake
  • Limit alcohol intake
  • Get plenty of sleep

Ask your doctor for a heart health check which looks at the key risk signs. Download our Heart Health Risk Assessment Guide to take with you to your next doctor's appointment.

Download your Assessment Guide

Research into Heart Failure

Learn about other heart diseases