Heart failure is a condition in which the heart can't pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. In some cases, the heart can't fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can't pump blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems.
The term "heart failure" doesn't mean that your heart has stopped or is about to stop working. However, heart failure is a serious condition that requires medical care.
Heart failure develops over time as the heart's pumping action grows weaker. The condition can affect the right side of the heart only, or it can affect both sides of the heart. Most cases involve both sides of the heart.
Right-side heart failure occurs if the heart can't pump enough blood to the lungs to pick up oxygen. Left-side heart failure occurs if the heart can't pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the rest of the body.
Right-side heart failure may cause fluid to build up in the feet, ankles, legs, liver, abdomen, and the veins in the neck. Right-side and left-side heart failure also may cause shortness of breath and fatigue (tiredness).
UCSF Medical Center earned a “high performance” rating – the highest rating possible – for treatment of heart failure in the latest U.S. News & World Report Best Hospitals Survey and was ranked as one of the best hospitals for Cardiology and Heart Surgery in the nation.
Heart failure is a very common condition. About 5.7 million people in the United States have heart failure. Both children and adults can have the condition, although the symptoms and treatments differ. The Health Topic focuses on heart failure in adults.
Currently, heart failure has no cure. However, treatments—such as medicines and lifestyle changes—can help people who have the condition live longer and more active lives. Researchers continue to study new ways to treat heart failure and its complications.
Other Names for Heart Failure
- Congestive heart failure.
- Left-side heart failure. This is when the heart can't pump enough oxygen-rich blood to the body.
- Right-side heart failure. This is when the heart can't fill with enough blood.
- Cor pulmonale. This term refers to right-side heart failure caused by high blood pressure in the pulmonary arteries and right ventricle (lower right heart chamber).
What Causes Heart Failure?
Conditions that damage or overwork the heart muscle can cause heart failure. Over time, the heart weakens. It isn’t able to fill with and/or pump blood as well as it should. As the heart weakens, certain proteins and substances might be released into the blood. These substances have a toxic effect on the heart and blood flow, and they worsen heart failure.
Causes of heart failure include:
- Coronary heart disease
- High blood pressure
- Other heart conditions or diseases
- Other factors
Coronary Heart Disease
Coronary heart disease is a condition in which a waxy substance called plaque builds up inside the coronary arteries. These arteries supply oxygen-rich blood to your heart muscle.
Plaque narrows the arteries and reduces blood flow to your heart muscle. The buildup of plaque also makes it more likely that blood clots will form in your arteries. Blood clots can partially or completely block blood flow. Coronary heart disease can lead to chest pain or discomfort called angina, a heart attack, and heart damage.
Diabetes is a disease in which the body’s blood glucose (sugar) level is too high. The body normally breaks down food into glucose and then carries it to cells throughout the body. The cells use a hormone called insulin to turn the glucose into energy.
In diabetes, the body doesn’t make enough insulin or doesn’t use its insulin properly. Over time, high blood sugar levels can damage and weaken the heart muscle and the blood vessels around the heart, leading to heart failure.
High Blood Pressure
Blood pressure is the force of blood pushing against the walls of the arteries. If this pressure rises and stays high over time, it can weaken your heart and lead to plaque buildup.
Blood pressure is considered high if it stays at or above 140/90 mmHg over time. (The mmHg is millimeters of mercury—the units used to measure blood pressure.) If you have diabetes or chronic kidney disease, high blood pressure is defined as 130/80 mmHg or higher.
Other Heart Conditions or Diseases
Other conditions and diseases also can lead to heart failure, such as:
- Arrhythmia. Happens when a problem occurs with the rate or rhythm of the heartbeat.
- Cardiomyopathy. Happens when the heart muscle becomes enlarged, thick, or rigid.
- Congenital heart defects. Problems with the heart’s structure are present at birth.
- Heart valve disease. Occurs if one or more of your heart valves doesn’t work properly, which can be present at birth or caused by infection, other heart conditions, and age.
Other factors also can injure the heart muscle and lead to heart failure. Examples include:
- Alcohol abuse or cocaine and other illegal drug use
- Thyroid disorders (having either too much or too little thyroid hormone in the body)
- Too much vitamin E
- Treatments for cancer, such as radiation and chemotherapy
Who Is at Risk for Heart Failure?
About 5.7 million people in the United States have heart failure. The number of people who have this condition is growing.
Heart failure is more common in:
- People who are age 65 or older. Aging can weaken the heart muscle. Older people also may have had diseases for many years that led to heart failure. Heart failure is a leading cause of hospital stays among people on Medicare.
- Blacks are more likely to have heart failure than people of other races. They’re also more likely to have symptoms at a younger age, have more hospital visits due to heart failure, and die from heart failure.
- People who are overweight. Excess weight puts strain on the heart. Being overweight also increases your risk of heart disease and type 2 diabetes. These diseases can lead to heart failure.
- People who have had a heart attack. Damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack and can weaken the heart muscle.
Children who have congenital heart defects also can develop heart failure. These defects occur if the heart, heart valves, or blood vessels near the heart don’t form correctly while a baby is in the womb. Congenital heart defects can make the heart work harder. This weakens the heart muscle, which can lead to heart failure. Children don’t have the same symptoms of heart failure or get the same treatments as adults. This Health Topic focuses on heart failure in adults.
What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Heart Failure?
The most common signs and symptoms of heart failure are:
- Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
- Fatigue (tiredness)
- Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck
All of these symptoms are the result of fluid buildup in your body. When symptoms start, you may feel tired and short of breath after routine physical effort, like climbing stairs.
As your heart grows weaker, symptoms get worse. You may begin to feel tired and short of breath after getting dressed or walking across the room. Some people have shortness of breath while lying flat.
Fluid buildup from heart failure also causes weight gain, frequent urination, and a cough that's worse at night and when you're lying down. This cough may be a sign of acute pulmonary edema (e-DE-ma). This is a condition in which too much fluid builds up in your lungs. The condition requires emergency treatment.
Heart Failure Signs and Symptoms
The image shows the major signs and symptoms of heart failure.
How Is Heart Failure Diagnosed?
Your doctor will diagnose heart failure based on your medical and family histories, a physical exam, and test results. The signs and symptoms of heart failure also are common in other conditions. Thus, your doctor will:
- Find out whether you have a disease or condition that can cause heart failure, such as coronary heart disease (CHD), high blood pressure, or diabetes
- Rule out other causes of your symptoms
- Find any damage to your heart and check how well your heart pumps blood
Early diagnosis and treatment can help people who have heart failure live longer, more active lives.
Medical and Family Histories
Your doctor will ask whether you or others in your family have or have had a disease or condition that can cause heart failure.
Your doctor also will ask about your symptoms. He or she will want to know which symptoms you have, when they occur, how long you've had them, and how severe they are. Your answers will help show whether and how much your symptoms limit your daily routine.
During the physical exam, your doctor will:
- Listen to your heart for sounds that aren't normal
- Listen to your lungs for the sounds of extra fluid buildup
- Look for swelling in your ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and the veins in your neck
No single test can diagnose heart failure. If you have signs and symptoms of heart failure, your doctor may recommend one or more tests.
Your doctor also may refer you to a cardiologist. A cardiologist is a doctor who specializes in diagnosing and treating heart diseases and conditions.
An EKG is a simple, painless test that detects and records the heart's electrical activity. The test shows how fast your heart is beating and its rhythm (steady or irregular). An EKG also records the strength and timing of electrical signals as they pass through your heart.
An EKG may show whether the walls in your heart's pumping chambers are thicker than normal. Thicker walls can make it harder for your heart to pump blood. An EKG also can show signs of a previous or current heart attack.
Chest X Ray
A chest x ray takes pictures of the structures inside your chest, such as your heart, lungs, and blood vessels. This test can show whether your heart is enlarged, you have fluid in your lungs, or you have lung disease.
BNP Blood Test
This test checks the level of a hormone in your blood called BNP. The level of this hormone rises during heart failure.
Echocardiography (echo) uses sound waves to create a moving picture of your heart. The test shows the size and shape of your heart and how well your heart chambers and valves work.
Echo also can identify areas of poor blood flow to the heart, areas of heart muscle that aren't contracting normally, and heart muscle damage caused by lack of blood flow.
Echo might be done before and after a stress test (see below). A stress echo can show how well blood is flowing through your heart. The test also can show how well your heart pumps blood when it beats.
A Doppler ultrasound uses sound waves to measure the speed and direction of blood flow. This test often is done with echo to give a more complete picture of blood flow to the heart and lungs.
Doctors often use Doppler ultrasound to help diagnose right-side heart failure.
A Holter monitor records your heart's electrical activity for a full 24- or 48-hour period, while you go about your normal daily routine.
You wear small patches called electrodes on your chest. Wires connect the patches to a small, portable recorder. The recorder can be clipped to a belt, kept in a pocket, or hung around your neck.
Nuclear Heart Scan
A nuclear heart scan shows how well blood is flowing through your heart and how much blood is reaching your heart muscle.
During a nuclear heart scan, a safe, radioactive substance called a tracer is injected into your bloodstream through a vein. The tracer travels to your heart and releases energy. Special cameras outside of your body detect the energy and use it to create pictures of your heart.
A nuclear heart scan can show where the heart muscle is healthy and where it's damaged.
A positron emission tomography (PET) scan is a type of nuclear heart scan. It shows the level of chemical activity in areas of your heart. This test can help your doctor see whether enough blood is flowing to these areas. A PET scan can show blood flow problems that other tests might not detect.
During cardiac catheterization (KATH-eh-ter-ih-ZA-shun), a long, thin, flexible tube called a catheter is put into a blood vessel in your arm, groin (upper thigh), or neck and threaded to your heart. This allows your doctor to look inside your coronary (heart) arteries.
During this procedure, your doctor can check the pressure and blood flow in your heart chambers, collect blood samples, and use x rays to look at your coronary arteries.
Coronary angiography (an-jee-OG-rah-fee) usually is done with cardiac catheterization. A dye that can be seen on x ray is injected into your bloodstream through the tip of the catheter.
The dye allows your doctor to see the flow of blood to your heart muscle. Angiography also shows how well your heart is pumping.
Some heart problems are easier to diagnose when your heart is working hard and beating fast. During stress testing, you exercise to make your heart work hard and beat fast.
You may walk or run on a treadmill or pedal a bicycle. If you can't exercise, you may be given medicine to raise your heart rate.
Heart tests, such as nuclear heart scanning and echo, often are done during stress testing.
Cardiac MRI (magnetic resonance imaging) uses radio waves, magnets, and a computer to create pictures of your heart as it's beating. The test produces both still and moving pictures of your heart and major blood vessels.
A cardiac MRI can show whether parts of your heart are damaged. Doctors also have used MRI in research studies to find early signs of heart failure, even before symptoms appear.
Thyroid Function Tests
Thyroid function tests show how well your thyroid gland is working. These tests include blood tests, imaging tests, and tests to stimulate the thyroid. Having too much or too little thyroid hormone in the blood can lead to heart failure.
How Is Heart Failure Treated?
Early diagnosis and treatment can help people who have heart failure live longer, more active lives. Treatment for heart failure depends on the type and severity of the heart failure.
The goals of treatment for all stages of heart failure include:
- Treating the condition’s underlying cause, such as coronary heart disease, high blood pressure, or diabetes
- Reducing symptoms
- Stopping the heart failure from getting worse
- Increasing your lifespan and improving your quality of life
How Can Heart Failure Be Prevented?
You can take steps to prevent heart failure. The sooner you start, the better your chances of preventing or delaying the condition.
For People Who Have Healthy Hearts
If you have a healthy heart, you can take action to prevent heart disease and heart failure. To reduce your risk of heart disease:
- Avoid using illegal drugs.
- Be physically active. The more active you are, the more you will benefit.
- Follow a heart-healthy eating plan.
- If you smoke, make an effort to quit. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.
- Maintain a healthy weight. Work with your health care team to create a reasonable weight-loss plan.
For People Who Are at High Risk for Heart Failure
- Follow all of the steps listed above. Talk with your doctor about what types and amounts of physical activity are safe for you.
- Treat and control any conditions that can cause heart failure. Take medicines as your doctor prescribes.
- Avoid drinking alcohol.
- See your doctor for ongoing care.
For People Who Have Heart Damage but No Signs of Heart Failure
If you have heart damage but no signs of heart failure, you can still reduce your risk of developing the condition. In addition to the steps above, take your medicines as prescribed to reduce your heart’s workload.
Living With Heart Failure
Heart-Healthy Lifestyle Changes
Your doctor may recommend heart-healthy lifestyle changes if you have heart failure. Heart-healthy lifestyle changes include:
Your doctor may recommend a heart-healthy eating plan, which should include:
- Fat-free or low-fat dairy products, such as skim milk
- Fish high in omega-3 fatty acids, such as salmon, tuna, and trout, about twice a week
- Fruits, such as apples, bananas, oranges, pears, and prunes
- Legumes, such as kidney beans, lentils, chickpeas, black-eyed peas, and lima beans
- Vegetables, such as broccoli, cabbage, and carrots
- Whole grains, such as oatmeal, brown rice, and corn tortillas
When following a heart-healthy diet, you should avoid eating:
- A lot of red meat
- Palm and coconut oils
- Sugary foods and beverages
Two nutrients in your diet make blood cholesterol levels rise:
- Saturated fat—found mostly in foods that come from animals
- Trans fat (trans fatty acids)—found in foods made with hydrogenated oils and fats, such as stick margarine; baked goods, such as cookies, cakes, and pies; crackers; frostings; and coffee creamers. Some trans fats also occur naturally in animal fats and meats.
Saturated fat raises your blood cholesterol more than anything else in your diet. When you follow a heart-healthy eating plan, only 5 percent to 6 percent of your daily calories should come from saturated fat. Food labels list the amounts of saturated fat. To help you stay on track, here are some examples:
If you eat:
Try to eat no more than:
1,200 calories a day
8 grams of saturated fat a day
1,500 calories a day
10 grams of saturated fat a day
1,800 calories a day
12 grams of saturated fat a day
2,000 calories a day
13 grams of saturated fat a day
2,500 calories a day
17 grams of saturated fat a day
Not all fats are bad. Monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats actually help lower blood cholesterol levels.
Some sources of monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats are:
- Corn, sunflower, and soybean oils
- Nuts and seeds, such as walnuts
- Olive, canola, peanut, safflower, and sesame oils
- Peanut butter
- Salmon and trout
You should try to limit the amount of sodium that you eat. This means choosing and preparing foods that are lower in salt and sodium. Try to use low-sodium and “no added salt” foods and seasonings at the table or while cooking. Food labels tell you what you need to know about choosing foods that are lower in sodium. Try to eat no more than 2,300 milligrams of sodium a day. If you have high blood pressure, you may need to restrict your sodium intake even more.
Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension
Your doctor may recommend the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) eating plan if you have high blood pressure. The DASH eating plan focuses on fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and other foods that are heart healthy and low in fat, cholesterol, and sodium and salt.
The DASH eating plan is a good heart-healthy eating plan, even for those who don’t have high blood pressure. Read more about DASH.
It’s important for people who have heart failure to take in the correct amounts and types of liquids. Consuming too much liquid can worsen heart failure. Also, if you have heart failure, you shouldn’t drink alcohol. Talk with your doctor about what amounts and types of liquids you should have each day.
Maintaining a Healthy Weight
Maintaining a healthy weight is important for overall health and can lower your risk for heart failure and coronary heart disease. Aim for a Healthy Weight by following a heart-healthy eating plan and keeping physically active.
Knowing your body mass index (BMI) helps you find out if you’re a healthy weight in relation to your height and gives an estimate of your total body fat. To figure out your BMI, check out the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s (NHLBI) online BMI calculator or talk to your doctor. A BMI:
- Below 18.5 is a sign that you are underweight.
- Between 18.5 and 24.9 is in the normal range.
- Between 25 and 29.9 is considered overweight.
- Of 30 or more is considered obese.
A general goal to aim for is a BMI below 25. Your doctor or health care provider can help you set an appropriate BMI goal.
Measuring waist circumference helps screen for possible health risks. If most of your fat is around your waist rather than at your hips, you’re at a higher risk for heart disease and type 2 diabetes. This risk may be higher with a waist size that is greater than 35 inches for women or greater than 40 inches for men. To learn how to measure your waist, visit Assessing Your Weight and Health Risk.
If you’re overweight or obese, try to lose weight. A loss of just 3 percent to 5 percent of your current weight can lower your triglycerides, blood glucose, and the risk of developing type 2 diabetes. Greater amounts of weight loss can improve blood pressure readings, lower LDL cholesterol, and increase HDL cholesterol.
Routine physical activity can lower many coronary heart disease risk factors, including LDL (“bad”) cholesterol, high blood pressure, and excess weight. Physical activity also can lower your risk for diabetes and raise your HDL cholesterol level. HDL is the “good” cholesterol that helps prevent coronary heart disease.
Everyone should try to participate in moderate-intensity aerobic exercise at least 2 hours and 30 minutes per week, or vigorous aerobic exercise for 1 hour and 15 minutes per week. Aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, is any exercise in which your heart beats faster and you use more oxygen than usual. The more active you are, the more you will benefit. Participate in aerobic exercise for at least 10 minutes at a time spread throughout the week.
Read more about physical activity at:
- Physical Activity and Your Heart
- U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ 2008 Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans
Talk with your doctor before you start a new exercise plan. Ask your doctor how much and what kinds of physical activity are safe for you.
If you smoke, quit. Smoking can raise your risk for coronary heart disease and heart attack and worsen heart failure. Talk with your doctor about programs and products that can help you quit smoking. Also, try to avoid secondhand smoke.
If you have trouble quitting smoking on your own, consider joining a support group. Many hospitals, workplaces, and community groups offer classes to help people quit smoking.
Read more about quitting smoking at Smoking and Your Heart.
Your doctor will prescribe medicines based on the type of heart failure you have, how severe it is, and your response to certain medicines. The following medicines are commonly used to treat heart failure:
- ACE inhibitors lower blood pressure and reduce strain on your heart. They also may reduce the risk of a future heart attack.
- Aldosterone antagonists trigger the body to remove excess sodium through urine. This lowers the volume of blood that the heart must pump.
- Angiotensin receptor blockers relax your blood vessels and lower blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
- Beta blockers slow your heart rate and lower your blood pressure to decrease your heart’s workload.
- Digoxin makes the heart beat stronger and pump more blood.
- Diuretics (fluid pills) help reduce fluid buildup in your lungs and swelling in your feet and ankles.
- Isosorbide dinitrate/hydralazine hydrochloride helps relax your blood vessels so your heart doesn’t work as hard to pump blood. Studies have shown that this medicine can reduce the risk of death in blacks. More studies are needed to find out whether this medicine will benefit other racial groups.
Take all medicines regularly, as your doctor prescribes. Don’t change the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to. You should still follow a heart healthy lifestyle, even if you take medicines to treat your heart failure.
You should watch for signs that heart failure is getting worse. For example, weight gain may mean that fluids are building up in your body. Ask your doctor how often you should check your weight and when to report weight changes.
Getting medical care for other related conditions is important. If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, work with your health care team to control these conditions. Have your blood sugar level and blood pressure checked. Talk with your doctor about when you should have tests and how often to take measurements at home.
Try to avoid respiratory infections like the flu and pneumonia. Talk with your doctor or nurse about getting flu and pneumonia vaccines.
Many people who have severe heart failure may need treatment in a hospital from time to time. Your doctor may recommend oxygen therapy, which can be given in a hospital or at home.
Medical Procedures and Surgery
As heart failure worsens, lifestyle changes and medicines may no longer control your symptoms. You may need a medical procedure or surgery.
In heart failure, the right and left sides of the heart may no longer contract at the same time. This disrupts the heart’s pumping. To correct this problem, your doctor might implant a cardiac resynchronization therapy device (a type of pacemaker) near your heart. This device helps both sides of your heart contract at the same time, which can decrease heart failure symptoms.
Some people who have heart failure have very rapid, irregular heartbeats. Without treatment, these heartbeats can cause sudden cardiac arrest. Your doctor might implant an implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) near your heart to solve this problem. An ICD checks your heart rate and uses electrical pulses to correct irregular heart rhythms.
People who have severe heart failure symptoms at rest, despite other treatments, may need:
- A mechanical heart pump, such as a left ventricular assist device. This device helps pump blood from the heart to the rest of the body. You may use a heart pump until you have surgery or as a long-term treatment.
- Heart transplant. A heart transplant is an operation in which a person’s diseased heart is replaced with a healthy heart from a deceased donor. Heart transplants are done as a life-saving measure for end-stage heart failure when medical treatment and less drastic surgery have failed.
Living With Heart Failure
Currently, heart failure has no cure. You'll likely have to take medicine and follow a treatment plan for the rest of your life.
Despite treatment, symptoms may get worse over time. You may not be able to do many of the things that you did before you had heart failure. However, if you take all the steps your doctor recommends, you can stay healthier longer.
Researchers also might find new treatments that can help you in the future.
Follow Your Treatment Plan
Treatment can relieve your symptoms and make daily activities easier. It also can reduce the chance that you'll have to go to the hospital. Thus, it's important that you follow your treatment plan.
- Take your medicines as your doctor prescribes. If you have side effects from any of your medicines, tell your doctor. He or she might adjust the dose or type of medicine you take to relieve side effects.
- Make all of the lifestyle changes that your doctor recommends.
- Get advice from your doctor about how active you can and should be. This includes advice on daily activities, work, leisure time, sex, and exercise. Your level of activity will depend on the stage of your heart failure (how severe it is).
- Keep all of your medical appointments, including visits to the doctor and appointments to get tests and lab work. Your doctor needs the results of these tests to adjust your medicine doses and help you avoid harmful side effects.
Take Steps To Prevent Heart Failure From Getting Worse
Certain actions can worsen your heart failure, such as:
- Forgetting to take your medicines
- Not following your diet (for example, eating salty foods)
- Drinking alcohol
These actions can lead to a hospital stay. If you have trouble following your diet, talk with your doctor. He or she can help arrange for a dietitian to work with you. Avoid drinking alcohol.
People who have heart failure often have other serious conditions that require ongoing treatment. If you have other serious conditions, you're likely taking medicines for them as well as for heart failure.
Taking more than one medicine raises the risk of side effects and other problems. Make sure your doctors and your pharmacist have a complete list of all of the medicines and over-the-counter products that you're taking.
Tell your doctor right away about any problems with your medicines. Also, talk with your doctor before taking any new medicine prescribed by another doctor or any new over-the-counter medicines or herbal supplements.
Try to avoid respiratory infections like the flu and pneumonia. Ask your doctor or nurse about getting flu and pneumonia vaccines.
If you have heart failure, it's important to know:
- When to seek help. Ask your doctor when to make an office visit or get emergency care.
- Phone numbers for your doctor and hospital.
- Directions to your doctor's office and hospital and people who can take you there.
- A list of medicines you're taking.
Emotional Issues and Support
Living with heart failure may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. Talk about how you feel with your health care team. Talking to a professional counselor also can help. If you're very depressed, your doctor may recommend medicines or other treatments that can improve your quality of life.
Joining a patient support group may help you adjust to living with heart failure. You can see how other people who have the same symptoms have coped with them. Talk with your doctor about local support groups or check with an area medical center.
Support from family and friends also can help relieve stress and anxiety. Let your loved ones know how you feel and what they can do to help you.
Links to Other Information About Heart Failure
- Coronary Heart Disease
- DASH Eating Plan
- Heart Transplant
- High Blood Pressure
- Implantable Cardioverter Defibrillator
- Physical Activity and Your Heart
- Smoking and Your Heart
- Ventricular Assist Device
- Heart Failure (Medline Plus)