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Learning About Heart Failure

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 and steps you take to make lifestyle changes and check your symptoms.

Treatment can slow the disease and help you feel better and live longer.

  • You'll probably take several medicines.
  • You'll take steps to care for yourself at home. You'll watch for changes in your symptoms. You may need to make lifestyle changes, such as limiting sodium, getting regular exercise, not smoking, and eating healthy foods.
  • You might attend cardiac rehabilitation (rehab) to get education and support that help you make lifestyle changes and stay as healthy as possible.
  • You may get a heart device. A pacemaker helps your heart pump blood. An ICD can stop abnormal heart rhythms.
  • As heart failure gets worse, hospice palliative care can help improve your quality of life. 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 and live longer. They can help you 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 alcohol, and don't smoke.
Stay as healthy as possible.
Manage other health problems such as diabetes and high blood pressure. Avoid colds and influenza (flu), 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.

Ask your doctor if you need to 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 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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