Heart failure — sometimes known as congestive heart failure — occurs when the heart muscle doesn't pump blood as well as it should. When this happens, blood often backs up and fluid can build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath. Certain heart conditions, such as narrowed arteries in the heart (coronary artery disease) or high blood pressure, gradually leave the heart too weak or stiff to fill and pump blood properly. In this article we will review some of the most commons symptoms of heart failure.
Heart Failure Symptoms
This table lists the most common signs and symptoms, explains why they occur and describes how to recognize them.
Sign or Symptom
People with Heart Failure May Experience...
Why It Happens
Shortness of breath (also called dyspnea)
...breathlessness during activity (most commonly), at rest, or while sleeping, which may come on suddenly and wake you up. You often have difficulty breathing while lying flat and may need to prop up the upper body and head on two pillows. You often complain of waking up tired or feeling anxious and restless.
Blood "backs up" in the pulmonary veins (the vessels that return blood from the lungs to the heart) because the heart can't keep up with the supply. This causes fluid to leak into the lungs.
Persistent coughing or wheezing
...coughing that produces white or pink blood-tinged mucus.
Fluid builds up in the lungs (see above).
Buildup of excess fluid in body tissues (edema)
...swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen or weight gain. You may find that your shoes feel tight.
As blood flow out of the heart slows, blood returning to the heart through the veins backs up, causing fluid to build up in the tissues. The kidneys are less able to dispose of sodium and water, also causing fluid retention in the tissues.
...a tired feeling all the time and difficulty with everyday activities, such as shopping, climbing stairs, carrying groceries or walking.
The heart can't pump enough blood to meet the needs of body tissues. The body diverts blood away from less vital organs, particularly muscles in the limbs, and sends it to the heart and brain.
Lack of appetite, nausea
...a feeling of being full or sick to your stomach.
The digestive system receives less blood, causing problems with digestion.
Confusion, impaired thinking
...memory loss and feelings of disorientation. A caregiver or relative may notice this first.
Changing levels of certain substances in the blood, such as sodium, can cause confusion.
Increased heart rate
...heart palpitations, which feel like your heart is racing or throbbing.
To "make up for" the loss in pumping capacity, the heart beats faster.
When to see a doctor
See your doctor if you think you might be experiencing signs or symptoms of heart failure. Call 911 or emergency medical help if you have any of the following:
. Chest pain
. Fainting or severe weakness
. Rapid or irregular heartbeat associated with shortness of breath, chest pain or fainting
. Sudden, severe shortness of breath and coughing up white or pink, foamy mucus
Although these signs and symptoms may be due to heart failure, there are many other possible causes, including other life-threatening heart and lung conditions. Don't try to diagnose yourself.
Emergency room doctors will try to stabilize your condition and determine if your symptoms are due to heart failure or something else.
If you have a diagnosis of heart failure and if any of the symptoms suddenly become worse or you develop a new sign or symptom, it may mean that existing heart failure is getting worse or not responding to treatment. This may also be the case if you gain 5 pounds (2.3 kilograms) or more within a few days. Contact your doctor promptly.
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