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I Have Heart Failure, Now What?

So you just left the doctor’s office and they told you that you have heart failure. You’re left wondering: what is heart failure, and what can I do about it? If this is you, you are not alone. In the US there are more than 6 million adults living with heart failure.

Heart failure is also known as congestive heart failure or CHF. There are a few different kinds of heart failure. Heart failure means your heart is not pumping blood through your body like it should. Depending on what type and stage of heart failure you have, symptoms and treatments may vary.

What is Heart Failure?

Your heart pumps blood throughout your body. In heart failure, the heart is

no longer pumping effectively. This could be because of a weakening or a stiffening of the heart muscle. Many symptoms are a result of fluid backup, either into the lungs, legs, or other areas of the body.

Heart Failure Symptoms

Heart failure may cause symptoms that make your day-to-day life more difficult. Shortness of breath is one of the most common symptoms. You may notice shortness of breath with activity, rest, or laying flat.

Here are some other common heart failure symptoms:

  • Cough

  • Leg Swelling

  • Weight gain

  • Fatigue

  • Frequent urination

  • Chest pain/tightness

Heart failure makes the heart weak or stiff. The fluid in your body can build up without your heart pumping it effectively. This fluid leads to a variety of symptoms.

Stages of Heart Failure

Heart Failure is categorized into stages A-D, or classes I-IV. This is a way of classifying symptoms based on severity. Heart failure is both chronic and progressive. This means when you reach a stage you cannot reverse stages.

American Heart Association A-D Stages of Heart Failure:

A. At risk for heart failure

B. Pre-heart failure

C. Symptomatic heart failure

D. Advanced heart failure

New York Heart Association Classes of Heart Failure:

I. No limitation on physical activity

II. Slight limitation on physical activity

III. Marked limitation on physical activity

IV. Symptoms of heart failure at rest

Your doctor will let you know what stage of heart failure you have.

What Causes Heart Failure?

There is not only one simple cause of heart failure. It develops from a combination of problems that damage the heart. Additional risk factors may make it more likely to develop heart failure.

Common causes of heart failure include:

  • Coronary heart disease

  • Inflammation of the heart

  • High blood pressure

  • Cardiomyopathy

  • Irregular heartbeat

What causes heart failure can be different for each person. Ask your doctor what may have caused your heart failure.

Risk Factors

Anything that damages the heart can be a risk factor for heart failure. Some risk factors you can’t change, such as your age. Other risk factors you can change, such as stopping smoking and keeping active. Trying to live a healthy lifestyle reduces some of those risk factors.

Common risk factors include:

  • History of heart attack

  • Age 65 or above

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Smoking

You can’t control all the risk factors of heart failure. Figure out which risk factors you can control to lower your chances of developing heart failure.

Why is it Important to Treat Heart Failure?

It’s important to treat heart failure to manage symptoms and slow its

progression. Unfortunately, heart failure cannot be cured. By treating your heart failure, you can keep doing the things you love for longer. Maybe that means taking a walk in the park with your family or going to dance recitals. Whatever that is for you, successful treatment may improve your quality of life.

Symptom management

To continue doing your everyday activities, you need to manage your symptoms. If you don’t manage your symptoms, you may become short of breath when walking around your own home. Some people struggle to lay flat to sleep when they experience worsening symptoms.

Reduce Hospitalizations

Heart failure is the most common cause of hospitalization in the US. You may need to go to the ER or be admitted to the hospital. Working with a doctor may lower the number of times you need to be in the hospital.

What Can I Do About My Heart Failure?

Your doctor may recommend several treatment plans at the same time. This includes both medication and lifestyle changes. It’s important for you to take part in your treatment of heart failure. Self-management is one of the biggest ways you can improve your symptoms.

Here are things you can do to help manage your heart failure.

1. Take Your Medications

There are several classes of medications your doctor may prescribe. Different types of medications target different symptoms. Combining these different medications can help prevent hospitalizations and death. It is important to take your medication as prescribed by your doctor.

Common categories of medications you may see are:

  • Water pills to manage fluid overload

  • Medications to manage heart rate

  • Medications to improve how your heart contracts

  • Medications to manage heart rhythm

Medications help your heart pump blood better, manage fluid, and improve your symptoms.

Side effects

Like many medications, there is a chance of side effects. Be sure to discuss potential side effects with your doctor. Some side effects include dizziness, low blood pressure, and frequent urination.

2. Eat a Heart Healthy Diet

One way to help manage heart failure is through what you eat and drink. Your doctor may tell you to limit salt and fluids.

Limit fluids

Many of the symptoms of heart failure are due to fluid overload. The body

can’t process fluids like it used to. To compensate for this, you may have to limit how much fluids you drink. Your doctor will let you know how much fluid you should drink each day. Water isn’t the only fluid you may have to limit. You may also have to limit your daily intake of coffee, tea, juice, soup broth, and ice cream.

Limit salt

Too much salt can lead to higher blood pressure and fluid buildup. Avoid adding salt from the salt shaker at the table and in your cooking. If someone cooks for you, ask them not to add salt while cooking. Look at the nutrition facts on foods you buy at the grocery store to check for sodium. Choose the “no salt added” or “low sodium” options when you can. Be aware that many canned foods and prepared foods in the frozen section are high in salt.

3. Stay Active

Staying active is an important part of managing heart failure. Discuss ideas

for how to stay active with your doctor that are safe for you. Going on frequent walks is a good way to incorporate physical activity.

4. Weigh Yourself Daily

When you have heart failure you should weigh yourself daily and track it by writing it down on a calendar. Take note if you gain 2 pounds from 1 day to the next, or 5 pounds in a week.

It’s possible the weight gain is not from an extra piece of cake that week. It could be a sign that your body is holding onto too much fluid. If you notice any weight gain you should call your doctor right away. You may need a change to your medication.

5. Monitor your Symptoms and Frequent Follow Up with your Doctor

Monitor your symptoms daily and let your doctor know of any worsening symptoms. Look out for swelling in the legs, shortness of breath, weight gain, chest pain, or chest tightness.

You can use the American Heart Association Self-Check Plan for Heart Failure Management. It gives you a guide to track your symptoms each day.

Contact your doctor if you experience:

  • Worsening symptoms

  • Increased weight gain

  • Starting to get harder to do normal activities than usual

Visit the emergency department or call 911 if you experience:

  • Chest pain

  • Severe shortness of breath

  • Unable to do any normal daily activities

Watch your symptoms each day. This helps you know when to contact your doctor or visit the emergency department.

6. Seek Support

Many people who have heart failure feel overwhelmed, or even anxious and depressed. Surround yourself with a support system of family and friends who can help you. If you experience anxiety or depression, seek professional help. Your

doctor or a counselor can provide support.


Heart failure is a chronic condition that affects your body’s ability to pump blood. It is important to work with your doctor to treat heart failure. You should be involved in managing your heart failure. Take your medications, eat a heart-healthy diet, stay active, and weigh yourself daily. You should track your symptoms daily and follow up with your doctor frequently. Heart failure can be overwhelming, so seek support when you need it.


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