Heart failure

What Is Heart Failure?

Heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood as well as it should. While many people assume that heart failure means the heart has stopped working, it actually means that the heart has become weak and cannot supply adequate blood to cells. Heart failure is considered a serious condition that required medical attention.

What Causes Heart Failure?

Heart failure is a progressive condition that occurs after underlying conditions have caused the heart to become weak or stop working properly. There are several conditions that can lead to heart failure including the following:

  • Coronary artery disease: This is a build-up of plaque and fatty deposits in the arteries that can cause a reduced flow of blood to the heart. Coronary artery disease is the most common type of heart failure known.
  • High blood pressure: When blood pressure levels are high, the heart needs to work harder to pump blood throughout the body. Over time the heart muscle can become too stiff or weak to compensate for the extra work required to offer effective blood flow.
  • Congenital heart defects: This included heart defects a person might have been born with. When the heart doesn’t develop correctly, the heart needs to work harder to get the right supply of blood to the body. This is something that can eventually lead to heart failure.
  • Abnormal heart rhythms: Experiencing abnormal heart rhythms (heart arrhythmias) can make the heart beat too rapidly, which makes the heart have to work harder. This can eventually weaken the heart and lead to heart failure.
  • Chronic disease: There are several chronic diseases and conditions that can lead to heart failure. These can include HIV/AIDS, diabetes, thyroid problems, and more.

Critical heart failure can be caused by a number of different circumstances including: severe infections, blood clots that have formed in the lungs, allergic reactions, certain medications, and during instances of extreme alcohol or benzodiazepine withdrawal.


There are several symptoms associated with heart failure. These include:

  • Experiencing dyspnea (shortness of breath) after regular activity or when laying down
  • Irregular heart beat
  • Fatigue
  • Relentless cough accompanied by white or phlegm
  • Swelling of the feet or ankles
  • Swelling of the abdomen
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea
  • Trouble concentrating
  • Chest pain

Some symptoms of heart failure will require immediate medical attention. Anyone experiencing the following conditions is urged to call their healthcare provider right away.

  • Extreme weakness or fatigue
  • Chest pain
  • Extremely irregular and rapid heartbeat
  • Fainting
  • Sudden and severe dyspnea accompanied by coughing up pink, foamy mucus


There are several approaches to treating heart failure. The type of treatment a person receives is dependent upon their personal circumstances. People experiencing heart failure should understand that it can require lifelong management, however it can be corrected.

Medications used to treat heart failure include certain heart medications, beta-blockers, diuretics, blood pressure support, ACE inhibitors, and more. One or more medications may be needed to treat heart failure. Individuals with serious heart failure may need to use supplemental oxygen on a long-term basis.

In instances of critical heart failure, surgery (coronary artery bypass surgery or heart valve surgery) can be necessary. An implantable cardioverter-defibrillator (ICD) can be implanted under the skin to monitor heart rhythm. A heart pump can also be planted into the abdomen or chest and attached to the weak heart to help it pump blood throughout the body.

Lifestyle changes are also recommended to people who experience heart failure. Getting regular exercise (20-30 minutes a day, 5 days a week) can significantly improve symptoms of heart failure. Quitting smoking and following a strict low-sodium diet is also recommended.

Heart Failure FAQ

Can a person have heart failure without being aware of it?

Yes. People in the early stages of heart failure can be unaware of it. Symptoms don’t usually appear early on because the body and heart tend to compensate for anything going wrong. Early symptoms can be likened to other problems including fatigue, shortness of breath, and weakness.

What are the risks for developing heart failure?

There are several risk factors involved for developing heart failure. High blood pressure, sleep apnea, thyroid problems, anemia, abnormal heart rhythms, and congenital heart disease can all contribute to heart failure. Lack of exercise, smoking, and poor diet are all lifestyle factors related to heart failure.

External Links

What is Heart Failure?, The American Heart Association, 2017

Heart failure, Mayo Clinic

Heart Failure FAQs, MedicineNet, John P. Cunha, DO, FACOEP, 2017

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