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Heart Failure and Heart Transplants

What Is Organ Rejection? continued...

With too much immunosuppression, the immune system can become sluggish, and a patient can easily develop severe infections. For this reason, drugs are also prescribed to fight infections. It is vital for you to be aware of the possible signs of rejection and infection so you can report them to your doctors and be treated immediately.

Warning signs of infection include:

  • Fever over 100.4°F (38°C).
  • Sweats or chills.
  • Skin rash.
  • Pain, tenderness, redness, or swelling.
  • Wound or cut that won't heal.
  • Red, warm, or draining sore.
  • Sore throat, scratchy throat, or pain when swallowing.
  • Sinus drainage, nasal congestion, headaches, or tenderness along upper cheekbones.
  • Persistent dry or moist cough that lasts more than two days.
  • White patches in your mouth or on your tongue.
  • Nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea.
  • Flu-like symptoms (chills, aches, headache, or fatigue) or generally feeling "lousy."
  • Trouble urinating: pain or burning, constant urge or frequent urination.
  • Bloody, cloudy or foul-smelling urine.

If you have any of these symptoms of organ rejection or infection, notify your doctor right away.

Can a Person Lead a Normal Life After a Heart Transplant?

With the exception of having to take lifelong medication to keep the body from rejecting the donated heart, many heart transplant recipients lead long and productive lives.

However, there are some things to keep in mind:

  • Medications. As mentioned, after a heart transplant, patients must take several drugs. The most important are those to keep the body from rejecting the transplant. These drugs, which must be taken for life, can cause significant side effects, including high blood pressure, fluid retention, excessive hair growth, osteoporosis, and possible kidney damage. To combat these problems, additional drugs are often prescribed.

  • Exercise. Heart transplant recipients can exercise and are encouraged to exercise to improve the function of the heart and to avoid weight gain. However, due to changes in the heart related to the transplant, patients should speak to their doctor or cardiac rehabilitation specialist before beginning an exercise program. Because the nerves leading to the heart are cut during the operation, the transplanted heart beats faster (about 100 to 110 beats per minute) than the normal heart (about 70 beats per minute). The new heart also responds more slowly to exercise and doesn't increase its rate as quickly as before.

  • Diet. After a heart transplant, the patient may need to follow a special diet, which may involve many of the same dietary changes made prior to surgery. A low-sodium diet will decrease the risk of high blood pressure, and fluid retention. Your doctor will discuss your specific dietary needs, and a registered dietitian can help you understand specific dietary guidelines.

How Long Can a Person Live After a Heart Transplant?

How long you live after a heart transplant depends on many factors, including age, general health, and response to the transplant. Recent figures show that 75% of heart transplant patients live at least five years after surgery. Nearly 85% return to work or other activities they previously enjoyed. Many patients enjoy swimming, cycling, running, or other sports.

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