Learning About Heart Failure

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What is heart failure?

Heart failure means that your heart muscle doesn't pump as much blood as your body needs. Failure doesn't mean that your heart has stopped. It means that your heart isn't pumping as well as it should.

Because your heart cannot pump well, your body tries to make up for it. To do this:

  • Your body holds on to salt and water. This increases the amount of blood in your bloodstream.
  • Your heart beats faster.
  • Your heart might get bigger.

Your body has an amazing ability to make up for heart failure. It may do such a good job that you don't know you have a disease. But at some point, your heart and body will no longer be able to keep up. Then fluid starts to build up in your lungs and other parts of your body.

This fluid buildup is called congestion. It's why some doctors call the disease congestive heart failure.

What can you expect when you have heart failure?

Heart failure is a lifelong (chronic) disease.

Treatment may be able to slow the disease and help you feel better. But heart failure tends to get worse over time. Despite this, there are many steps you can take to feel better and stay healthy longer.

Early on, your symptoms may not be too bad. As heart failure gets worse, symptoms typically get worse, and you may need to limit your activities. Heart failure can also get worse suddenly. If this happens, you need emergency care. Then, after treatment, your symptoms may go back to being stable (which means they stay the same) for a long time.

Heart failure can lead to other health problems, such as heart rhythm problems. Over time, your treatment options may change, especially as your symptoms get worse. You may want to think about what kind of care you want at the end of your life.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms of heart failure start to happen when your heart can't pump enough blood to the rest of your body.

In the early stages of heart failure, you may:

  • Feel tired easily.
  • Be short of breath when you exert yourself.
  • Feel like your heart is pounding or racing (palpitations).
  • Feel weak or dizzy.

As heart failure gets worse, fluid starts to build up in your lungs and other parts of your body. This may cause you to:

  • Feel short of breath even at rest.
  • Have swelling (edema), especially in your legs, ankles, and feet.
  • Gain weight. This may happen over just a day or two, or more slowly.
  • Cough or wheeze, especially when you lie down.
  • Feel bloated or sick to your stomach.

How is heart failure treated?

Heart failure is treated with medicines, a healthy lifestyle, and the steps you take to check your symptoms.

Treatment can slow the disease, help you feel better, and help keep you out of the hospital. Treatment may also help you live longer.

  • You'll probably take several medicines.
  • Have a heart-healthy lifestyle that includes limiting sodium, getting regular exercise, not smoking, and eating healthy foods.
  • Watch for changes in your symptoms.
  • Cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) can give you education and support that help you stay as healthy as possible.
  • You may get a heart device such as a pacemaker or implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD).
  • You may choose palliative care to help improve your quality of life.
  • As heart failure gets worse, you may have other options such as a ventricular assist device or a heart transplant. You can do advance care planning to decide what kind of care you want at the end of your life.

How can you care for yourself?

There are many steps you can take to feel better, stay active, and enjoy life.

Take your medicine the right way.
Avoid medicines that can make your symptoms worse.
Check your weight and symptoms every day.
Know what to do if your symptoms get worse.
Limit sodium.
This helps keep fluid from building up. It may help you feel better.
Be active.
Exercise regularly, but don't exercise too hard.
Be heart-healthy.
Eat healthy foods, stay at a healthy weight, limit or avoid alcohol, and don't smoke.
Stay as healthy as possible.
Manage other health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Get recommended vaccines, including vaccines for COVID-19, the flu, and pneumonia. Get help for depression and anxiety, and manage stress. If you think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use, talk to your doctor.

Your doctor may also recommend that you limit the amount of fluids you drink.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

Where can you learn more?

Go to http://www.healthwise.net/patientEd

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.