There’s no cure for congestive heart failure -- not yet anyway. But if you or a loved one is among the 5.8 million Americans living with heart failure, even if it’s advanced, you should know that simple self-care measures can effectively help curb fatigue, shortness of breath, swelling, and other symptoms.
In addition to improving their quality of life, heart failure patients who practice good self-care are less likely to wind up in the hospital.
Edema is the medical term for swelling. It is a general response of the body to injury or inflammation. Edema can be isolated to a small area or affect the entire body. Medications, infections, pregnancy, and many medical problems can cause edema.
Edema results whenever small blood vessels become "leaky" and release fluid into nearby tissues. The extra fluid accumulates, causing the tissue to swell.
“Heart failure is a progressive disease, but the rate of progression varies a great deal,” says Stuart D. Katz, MD, professor of medicine at New York University School of Medicine and director of the heart failure program at NYU Langone Medical Center in New York City. “At least three-quarters of patients who practice self-care can help themselves in very meaningful ways.”
Here are nine self-care strategies suggested by Katz and Randall C. Starling, MD, professor of medicine at the Cleveland Clinic and the author of The Cleveland Clinic Guide to Heart Failure.
1. Take Your Heart Medicines
Strict adherence to the prescribed drug regimen is vitally important for people with heart failure, even those with advanced stages of the illness. “These drugs don’t just make people feel better,” Starling says. “They reduce hospitalizations and save lives.”
Heart failure patients typically take five to eight drugs, including diuretics (water pills), beta-blockers, ACE inhibitors, blood thinners, potassium supplements, and aspirin.
To keep such a challenging regimen as simple as possible (and to avoid the chance of a missed or repeated dose), ask your doctor if there are once-daily dosing options available. Why take two or more pills of a particular medicine each day when you could be taking just one?
2. Cut Back on Sodium
The American Heart Association says people with heart failure should consume less than 2,000 mg of sodium a day. To get down to that level, you’ll probably have to ditch the salt shaker. (Instead, use spices and other seasonings to flavor food.) In addition, stay away from cold cuts, cheese, and pickles, which have a lot of sodium. Be wary of fast food and any food sold in a can, bottle, or jar (which might contain lots of salt).
Talk to your doctor before turning to salt substitutes as they may be high in potassium, which can be dangerous for people with heart failure
Ideally, your meals will be prepared from fresh foods. If you must eat commercially prepared foods, look for low-sodium varieties. Read labels carefully to find how just how much sodium each serving contains. Try to choose low-sodium foods – no more than 140 mg per serving – to stay within your 2,000 mg daily goal.