Medically Reviewed by James Beckerman, MD, FACC on June 12, 2020

What Is Heart Failure?


The name doesn’t mean your heart stops. It just doesn’t work as well as it should. It happens when the heart can’t pump enough blood and oxygen to your body. It may be because the heart muscle has been weakened. But there are also other things that may cause the heart to work less efficiently than it should. The heart can compensate for a while, but eventually you'll need to get treated.


What Causes It?


Your heart can begin to fail as you age, but the condition can affect young people, too. Most people with it had a related problem first. It could be high blood pressure, coronary artery disease, a heart attack, a birth defect of the heart, or a disease that strikes the blood-pumping muscle. 

Lung disease can lead to heart failure, too. Obesity, diabetes and sleep apnea have also been linked to it.

Symptom: Shortness of Breath


It's one of the first red flags you may notice, especially after you’re active. It can also happen when you’re at rest once heart failure gets worse. Sometimes you may feel short of breath when you’re lying down or sleeping. That’s because the heart can’t keep up with the blood flow back to it from the lungs. When that happens, fluid leaks into the lungs. That will make it harder to breathe.

Symptom: Fatigue


If your heart isn’t pumping properly, the brain takes blood from less-important areas of the body -- like the muscles in your limbs -- to the brain and other vital organs. That can make your arms and legs feel weak. You may feel tired doing everyday things like climbing stairs or walking across the room. You can also get light-headed.

Symptom: Nagging Cough and Wheeze


This is another sign that your heart is struggling, and that blood returning to it from the lungs is backing up. That means fluid gets in your lungs. Sometimes, the cough can bring up white or pinkish mucus. Let your doctor know if you have it.

Symptom: Swelling and Weight Gain


Fluid can back up in tissues, too. This can cause your feet, ankles, legs or belly to swell. The kidneys, since they have less blood to work with, may not get rid of sodium as well. That would cause more fluid to stay in your tissues. Talk with your doctor right away if you have persistent swelling or sudden weight gain.

Symptom: Nausea


You may have that -- or you might just feel full, as if you can’t eat any more. Either way, that can lead to a lack of appetite. This happens because your digestive system isn’t getting enough blood and oxygen.

Symptom: A Racing Heart


It's a common warning sign. When your heart doesn’t pump enough blood, your body knows. It can make up for this in a few ways:

  • By adding muscle to your heart to push more strongly
  • By enlarging your heart so it can stretch and snap back better
  • By making your heart beat faster


Symptom: Confusion


You may seem confused or sluggish. You might be disoriented, or you might start forgetting things. When other organs aren’t working well because of a lack of blood, it affects the amount of some things (like sodium) in the blood. This can affect your brain.

Tips to Prevent Heart Failure


You can lower your odds of getting the condition. Make sure to eat well and exercise. If you smoke, quit. If you’re carrying a few extra pounds, do what you can to lose them. If you’re already at high risk, or your heart already is damaged, your doctor can help lower your risk with medicine. It’s important that you and your doctor work as a team.

Heart Failure Treatment


There’s usually no cure for the problem, but it can be treated. Typically, that plan will include things like exercise and a low-sodium diet. Your doctor may ask that you weigh yourself daily to make sure you’re not keeping too much fluid. You’ll also need to keep track of how much fluid you eat or drink each day. There’ll be medicine to take. You’ll also likely need to manage stress and avoid caffeine. Your doctor might also recommend surgery to implant devices to help your heart, too.

Living With Heart Failure


It doesn’t have to rule your life. Focus on what you can do with your condition, not what you can’t do. You may have to choose what’s most important and skip some of the other things. You may have to rest up, too.

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American Heart Association: “About Heart Failure.”

American Heart Association: “Heart Failure.”

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: “Heart Failure Fact Sheet.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “What is Heart Failure?”

Mayo Clinic, “Heart Failure.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?”

American Heart Association: “Lifestyle Changes for Heart Failure.”

American Heart Association: “Devices and Surgeries to Treat Heart Failure.”

National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute: “How Can Heart Failure Be Prevented?”

Lynne Warner Stevenson, MD, director, cardiomyopathy and heart failure program, Brigham and Women’s Hospital, Boston; professor, Harvard Medical School.