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Heart Failure: Care Instructions

Your Care Instructions

Heart failure occurs when your heart does not pump as much blood as the body needs. Failure does not mean that the heart has stopped pumping but rather that it is not pumping as well as it should. Over time, this causes fluid buildup in your lungs and other parts of your body. Fluid buildup can cause shortness of breath, fatigue, swollen ankles, and other problems. By taking medicines regularly, reducing sodium (salt) in your diet, checking your weight every day, and making lifestyle changes, you can feel better and live longer.

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.

How can you care for yourself at home?


  • Be safe with medicines. Take your medicines exactly as prescribed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Do not take any vitamins, over-the-counter medicine, or natural health products without talking to your doctor first. Do not take ibuprofen (Advil or Motrin) and naproxen (Aleve) without talking to your doctor first. They could make your heart failure worse.
  • You may take some of the following medicine.
    • Angiotensin-converting enzyme inhibitors (ACEIs) or angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs) reduce the heart's workload, lower blood pressure, and reduce swelling. Taking an ACEI or ARB may lower your chance of needing to be hospitalized.
    • Beta-blockers can slow heart rate, decrease blood pressure, and improve your condition. Taking a beta-blocker may lower your chance of needing to be hospitalized.
    • Diuretics, also called water pills, reduce swelling.

You will get more details on the specific medicines your doctor prescribes.


  • Your doctor may suggest that you limit sodium. Your doctor can tell you how much sodium is right for you. An example is less than 2,000 mg a day. This includes all the salt you eat in cooking or in packaged foods. People get most of their sodium from processed foods. Fast food and restaurant meals also tend to be very high in sodium.
  • Ask your doctor how much liquid you can drink each day. You may have to limit liquids.


  • Weigh yourself without clothing at the same time each day. Record your weight. Call your doctor if you have a sudden weight gain, such as more than 1 kg (2 lb) to 1.3 kg (3 lb) in a day or 2.3 kg (5 lb) in a week. (Your doctor may suggest a different range of weight gain.) A sudden weight gain may mean that your heart failure is getting worse.

Activity level

  • Start light exercise (if your doctor says it is okay). Even if you can only do a small amount, exercise will help you get stronger, have more energy, and manage your weight and your stress. Walking is an easy way to get exercise. Start out by walking a little more than you did before. Bit by bit, increase the amount you walk.
  • When you exercise, watch for signs that your heart is working too hard. You are pushing yourself too hard if you cannot talk while you are exercising. If you become short of breath or dizzy or have chest pain, stop, sit down, and rest.
  • If you feel "wiped out" the day after you exercise, walk slower or for a shorter distance until you can work up to a better pace.
  • Get enough rest at night. Sleeping with 1 or 2 pillows under your upper body and head may help you breathe easier.

Lifestyle changes

  • Do not smoke. Smoking can make a heart condition worse. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good. Quitting smoking may be the most important step you can take to protect your heart.
  • Limit alcohol. Too much alcohol can cause health problems.
  • Avoid getting sick from colds and influenza (flu). Get a pneumococcal vaccine shot. If you have had one before, ask your doctor whether you need a second dose. Get a flu shot each year. If you must be around people with colds or the flu, wash your hands often.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 if you have symptoms of sudden heart failure such as:

  • You have severe trouble breathing.
  • You cough up pink, foamy mucus.
  • You have a new irregular or rapid heartbeat.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have new or increased shortness of breath.
  • You are dizzy or light-headed, or you feel like you may faint.
  • You have sudden weight gain, such as 1 to 1.3 kilograms in a day or 2 kilograms in a week. (Your doctor may suggest a different range of weight gain.)
  • You have increased swelling in your legs, ankles, or feet.
  • You are suddenly so tired or weak that you cannot do your usual activities.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor or nurse advice line if you develop new symptoms.

Where can you learn more?

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