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Learning About Self-Care for Heart Failure

What is self-care for heart failure?

Heart failure usually gets worse over time. But there are many things you can do to feel better, avoid the hospital, and live longer.

Self-care means managing your health by doing certain things every day, like weighing yourself. It's about knowing which symptoms to watch for so you can avoid getting worse. When you practice good self-care, you know when it's time to call your doctor or nurse advice line and when your heart failure has turned into an emergency. The list below can help.

Top 5 self-care tips for every day

  1. Take your medicines as prescribed. This gives them the best chance of helping you.
  2. Weigh yourself every day. This helps you watch for signs that you're getting worse. Weight gain may be a sign that your body is holding on to too much fluid. Weigh yourself at the same time each day, using the same scale, on a hard, flat surface. The best time is in the morning after you go to the toilet and before you eat or drink anything.
  3. Keep a daily record of your symptoms. Checking your symptoms helps you see what symptoms are normal for you and if they change or get worse.
  4. Limit sodium. This helps keep fluid from building up and may help you feel better. Your doctor can tell you how much sodium is right for you. An example is less than 3,000 milligrams (mg) a day. Try limiting the salt you eat at home, and by watching for "hidden" sodium when you eat out or shop for food.
  5. Try to exercise regularly. Do not start to exercise until you have talked with your doctor. Together you can make an exercise program that is enjoyable and safe for you.

Some people with heart failure also may need to limit how much fluid they drink each day. Your doctor will let you know if you need to limit fluids.

When should you act?

Try to become familiar with signs that mean your heart failure is getting worse. If you need help, talk with your doctor about making a personal plan.

Here are some things to watch for as you practice your daily self-care. Call your doctor or nurse advice line if:

  • You have sudden weight gain, such as more than 1 to 1.3 kilograms (2 to 3 pounds) in a day or 2.3 kilograms (5 pounds) in a week. (Your doctor may suggest a different range of weight gain.)
  • You have new or worse swelling in your feet, ankles, or legs.
  • Your breathing gets worse. Activities that did not make you short of breath before are hard for you now.
  • Your breathing when you lie down is worse than usual, or you wake up at night needing to catch your breath.

Be sure to make and go to all of your follow-up appointments. And it's always a good idea to call your doctor or nurse advice line anytime you have a sudden change in symptoms.

When is it an emergency?

Sometimes the symptoms get worse very quickly. This is called sudden heart failure. It causes fluid to build up in your lungs.

Sudden heart failure is an emergency. If you have any of these symptoms, you need care right away. Call 911 if:

  • You have severe shortness of breath.
  • You have an irregular or fast heartbeat.
  • You cough up foamy, pink mucus.

What else can you do to stay healthy?

There are other things you can do to take care of your body and your heart. These things will help you feel better. And they will also reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.

  • Eat heart-healthy foods. These foods include vegetables, fruits, nuts, beans, lean meat, fish, and whole grains.
  • Stay at a healthy weight. Lose weight if you need to.
  • If you smoke, quit.
  • Limit or avoid alcohol. Ask your doctor how much alcohol, if any, is safe for you.
  • Manage other health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure.
  • Avoid infections such as COVID-19, colds, and influenza (flu). Get the flu vaccine every year. Get a pneumococcal vaccine. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need another dose. Stay up to date on your COVID-19 vaccines.

If your doctor has not set you up with a cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) program, ask if it's right for you. Cardiac rehab includes exercise, help with diet and lifestyle changes, and emotional support.

Also let your doctor know if:

  • You're having trouble sleeping. Sleep is important to your well-being. It also helps your heart work the way it's supposed to. Your doctor can help you decide if you need treatment for sleep problems.
  • You're feeling sad or hopeless much of the time, or you are worried and anxious. Heart failure can be hard on your emotions. Treatment with counselling and medicine can help.
  • You think you may have a problem with alcohol or drug use. You and your doctor can decide if you have a problem and what type of treatment might help you.

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 or nurse advice line (811 in most provinces and territories) 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?

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