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Heart Failure


In heart failure, the heart is unable to pump the right amount of blood throughout the body. This causes blood to back up in the veins. Depending on which part of the heart is affected, this can lead to a buildup of excess fluid in the lungs, feet, and elsewhere. Heart failure can worsen with time, which may lead to the use of many treatments. Because of this, doctors are aggressive in treating heart failure to try to prevent it from worsening.

Blood Flow through the Heart
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The leading causes of heart failure are:

Other common causes include:

Other less common causes include:


Symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath—at first only with activity, then progressing to shortness of breath at rest
  • Unexplained weight gain
  • Swelling of feet, ankles, or legs
  • Need to sleep propped up
  • Fatigue, weakness
  • Wheezing
  • Cough —may be dry and hacking or wet sounding, may have a pink, frothy sputum
  • Frequent urination, especially at night
  • Abdominal pain

Risk Factors

Heart failure is more common in older adults, men, and people of African American descent.

Factors that increase your chances of getting heart failure include:


You will be asked about your symptoms and medical history. A physical exam will be done.

Your bodily fluids may be tested. This can be done with:

  • Blood tests
  • Urine tests

Your heart may be examined. This can be done with:


Treatment of Condition Causing the Symptoms

Heart failure may be caused by another condition. Treating this condition should improve your heart failure or prevent it from getting worse.

Lifestyle Changes

The following lifestyle changes can help treat the symptoms of heart failure and slow down its progression:

  • Avoid alcohol.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways toquit .
  • Lose weight if needed
  • Eat a healthy diet . Your diet should be low in fat and high in fiber .
  • In some cases, you may need to restrict salt and fluid intake.
  • Begin an exercise program with guidance from your doctor. Aerobic training may help improve your level of physical activity and quality of life. You should aim to exercise for 20-30 minutes at least five times each week. You can begin slowly and work your way to this goal. Talk to your doctor before you start an exercise program.
  • Weigh yourself every morning. This will allow you to quickly detect if you are retaining fluid. Call your doctor if you gain three or more pounds in one day, five or more pounds in one week, or whatever amount you were told to report. The best time to weigh yourself is before breakfast and after urinating. You should weigh yourself while wearing the same type of clothes, without shoes, and on the same scale. This will help you to know that your weight is accurate.


Your doctor will most likely prescribe a combination of medications, such as:

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors or their alternatives to widen blood vessels
  • Digoxin, also called digitalis, to help your heart pump
  • Beta-blockers to slow your heart rate and lower blood pressure
  • Diuretics to remove excess fluid in your body
  • Nitrates to dilate the blood vessels

You may also be given medications to:

  • Thin the blood, such as aspirin, warfarin
  • Help manage chest pain, such as nitroglycerin
  • Help manage cholesterol levels
  • Help control high blood pressure

Your doctor may advise you to take supplements, such as coenzyme Q10. Follow your doctor's advice regarding taking any supplements.

If heart failure worsens, you may need medical devices to help your heart pump blood properly.

Note: Non-steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs such as ibuprofen and naproxen can worsen your condition. Talk to your doctor about other medications you may be able to take.


The best way to prevent heart failure is to reduce your risk of:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes

Take these steps to reduce your risk:

  • Begin a safe exercise program with the advice of your doctor.
  • If you smoke, talk to your doctor about ways to quit.
  • Limit alcohol.
  • Lose weight if needed. After you have lost weight, maintain a healthy weight .
  • Eat a healthy diet. The DASH diet , in particular, may reduce the risk of high blood pressure and heart failure, particularly in women. The DASH diet is:
    • Rich in fruits, vegetables, and low-fat dairy foods
    • Low in saturated fat, total fat, and cholesterol
  • Eat whole grain breakfast cereal. In addition to the other healthy habits, this may reduce your risk.

Revision Information

  • American College of Cardiology

  • American Heart Association

  • Health Canada

  • Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada

  • ACCF/AHA 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. 2009;119(14):1977-20016.

  • Congestive heart failure. American Heart Association website. Available at: Updated January 24, 2011. Accessed September 29, 2014.

  • Heart failure exercise/activity guidelines—exercise. Cleveland Clinic website. Available at: Accessed September 29, 2014.

  • Hunt, SA, Abraham, WT, Chin, MH, et al. ACC/AHA 2005 Guideline Update for the Diagnosis and Management of Chronic Heart Failure in the Adult: a report of the American College of Cardiology/American Heart Association Task Force on Practice Guidelines. Circulation . 2005;112:e154.

  • Hunt SA, Baker DW, Chin MH, et al. ACC/AHA guidelines for the evaluation and management of chronic heart failure in the adult. American College of Cardiology Foundation (ACCF). 2005;46(6):e1-82.

  • Lifestyle changes for heart failure. American Heart Association website. Available at: Updated September 20, 2012. Accessed September 29, 2014.

  • Paterna S, Parrinello G, Cannizzaro S, et al. Medium term effects of different dosage of diuretic, sodium, and fluid administration on neurohormonal and clinical outcome in patients with recently compensated heart failure. Am J Cardiol. 2009;103:93-102. Epub 2008 Oct 17.

  • Physical changes to report. American Heart Association website. Available at: Updated June 30, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2014.

  • What is heart failure? National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute website. Available at: Accessed March 27, 2014. Accessed September 29, 2014.

  • 4/16/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Nilsson BB, Westheim A, Risberg MA. Effects of group-based high-intensity aerobic interval training in patients with chronic heart failure. Am J Cardiol. 2008 Nov 15;102:1361-1365. Epub 2008 Sep 11.

  • 7/6/2009 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Levitan EB, Wolk A, Mittleman MA. Consistency with the DASH diet and incidence of heart failure. Arch Intern Med. 2009;169:851-857.

  • 8/31/2009 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance Djoussé L, Driver JA, Gaziano JM. Relation between modifiable lifestyle factors and lifetime risk of heart failure. JAMA. 2009;302:394-400.

  • 3/5/2013 DynaMed Systematic Literature Surveillance Dinicolantonio JJ, Pasquale PD, Taylor RS, et al. Low sodium versus normal sodium diets in systolic heart failure: systematic review and meta-analysis. Heart. 2013 Jan 24. [Epub ahead of print.]

  • 11/25/2013 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance. Madmani ME, Solaiman AY, et al. coenzyme Q10 for heart failure. Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2013 Sep 18;9.

  • 4/2/2014 DynaMed's Systematic Literature Surveillance Choosing wisely. EBSCO DynaMed website. Available at: Updated March 26, 2014. Accessed April 2, 2014.