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In This Article

What Is the Difference Between Heart Failure, Heart Disease, and a Heart Attack?

Heart disease is an umbrella term for a lot of different conditions, such as:

  • Arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat
  • Coronary artery disease, where plaque builds up in the vessels that carry blood throughout the muscles of the heart
  • Structural heart disease, where there’s a defect in the heart’s structure (valves, chambers, or walls)
  • Heart failure, when the heart is weak and unable to pump blood well; it hasn’t “failed’ or quit working, but it does need help to work better

Heart attack most often refers to a myocardial infarction (MI), where plaque buildup in the arteries keeps blood (and oxygen) from reaching the heart muscle. With better treatment today, more and more people survive their MI.

What Causes Heart Failure?

The most common causes are myocardial infarction (heart attack), hypertension (high blood pressure), and cardiomyopathy (diseased heart muscle). Less common causes include: heart valve disease, endocarditis (infection of the heart muscle), arrhythmias (abnormal heart rhythm), too much alcohol consumption, anemia, chemotherapy to treat cancer, pulmonary hypertension (high blood pressure in the vessels that supply blood to your lungs), and amyloidosis (protein buildup that can occur in the heart and other organs).

If I Have Heart Failure, Do I Have to Stop Eating Salty Foods?

Not entirely, but you do have to pay attention to how much salt you’re eating. Sodium, a mineral that’s found naturally in foods and can be added to processed foods, helps your body keep a normal balance of fluid. By limiting salt in your diet, you will decrease the amount of extra fluid around your heart, lungs, and legs. Extra fluid will make your heart have to work harder and worsen your symptoms. Ask your doctor what amount of sodium is right for you; the answer depends on the seriousness of your heart failure. Common limits are 1,500 to 2,000 milligrams of sodium per day.

How Much Water Can I Drink?

Check with your health care provider about how much water you should drink every day. You may be taking diuretics (medications to remove extra fluid from your body), but if you replace them by drinking more water, your heart will still be strained. To cut back, try using smaller cups, spreading out how much water you drink throughout your day, drinking hot/cold beverages, sucking on ice cubes, and limiting caffeine.

Am I Allowed to Drink Alcohol?

Yes, unless your heart failure was first caused by drinking too much. But be sure not to overdo it. Stay within recommended limits: no more than one daily drink for women and two for men.

Can I Safely Drive a Car?

Ask your doctor if you’re OK to drive. If you drive a vehicle for a living, speak with your employer. There may be laws and regulations that apply.

Can I Take Flights?

If your heart failure symptoms are stable, you probably won’t have any problems. Some people do require extra oxygen during the flight. If so, check ahead with your airline so that you can understand their policies.

Also, if you’ve had a pacemaker implanted, let the airport staff know when you enter the security checkpoints (but neither air travel nor security machines will affect your device). To stay comfortable, try stretching and moving about while on the plane. Your doctor may also advise that you wear compression socks to prevent blood clots.

Talk to your doctor if you’re thinking about traveling to high altitudes. The lack of oxygen can put more strain on your heart. Your medications may need to be adjusted or it may be safest not to go.

Is It Safe to Have Sex?

Probably, but check with your doctor first. Sex is, in a way, exercise, so you may need to wait a bit if you’ve had a recent surgery or if your heart failure is severe. Even if you can’t have sex, it’s still safe to express yourself in other ways, like touching and kissing. Also, be kind to yourself. Having heart failure can be stressful. You may find you have changes in your relationships and less interest in sex, or have sexual side effects (such as erectile dysfunction) from medications you’re taking to treat your disease. Don’t be afraid to bring these valid concerns up with your health care team. They can help you find resources like sexual counseling.

What Type of Exercise Is Best for Someone With Heart Failure?

Physical activity is a great way to strengthen your heart, improve blood circulation, and raise your body’s ability to use oxygen. Depending on your health, you may need to avoid certain activities, so ask your doctor when is the right time to start exercising. You’ll want to start slowly and rest when you need to. Be on the lookout for signs you’re pushing too hard (for example, shortness of breath, dizziness, or really fast heart rate). Walking is a good form of exercise. Other activities like swimming and stationary cycling may also be good fits.

How Do I Know if My Heart Failure Is Getting Worse?

Talk with your doctor if you notice mental changes like confusion or memory loss. Also pay attention to shortness of breath, feeling extra tired, a faster heart rate, quick weight gain, swelling in your feet and legs, or changes in your appetite or sleep.

Show Sources


British Heart Foundation: “Heart Failure.”

Cleveland Clinic: “Heart Attack (Myocardial Infarction),” “Sudden Cardiac Death (Sudden Cardiac Arrest),” “Heart Failure Diet: Low Sodium,” “Heart Failure: Exercise and Activity.”

CDC: “About Heart Disease,” “Dietary Guidelines for Alcohol.”

Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai: “Structural Heart Disease.”

American Heart Association: “Managing Heart Failure Symptoms,” “Travel to high altitudes could be dangerous for people with heart conditions.”

National Health Service: “Living With Heart Failure.”

Mayo Clinic: “Heart Failure and Sex: Is It Safe?”

Heart Failure Association of the European Society of Cardiology: “Adjusting Your Diet: Fluids,” “Air Travel,” “Driving.”