Please note: This information was current at the time of publication but now may be out of date. This handout provides a general overview and may not apply to everyone. 

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Am Fam Physician. 2001;64(8):1399

What is heart failure?

Heart failure means your heart does not pump enough blood. Your heart doesn't work well because the heart muscle is weak. Many illnesses can cause heart failure, including heart attacks, leaky heart valves and cardiomyopathies.

How will I feel if I have heart failure?

You will be short of breath because of the extra fluid in your lungs. Your legs will swell, and you will gain weight from the extra fluid. You will feel tired because it is hard to breathe. Other signs of heart failure include a cough that won't go away, nausea, lack of appetite and confusion.

You may feel better when the extra fluid is gone, but the fluid can come back again.

How is heart failure treated?

You can take several different medicines for heart failure. For example, medicines called diuretics keep fluid from filling your lungs. Medicines called ACE inhibitors are used to open your blood vessels and lower your blood pressure. This makes it easier for your heart to pump blood through your body. Talk with your doctor about which medicines are right for you.

Can heart failure be cured?

Heart failure is a chronic illness. It has no cure. However, some medicines can help people with this illness live longer and feel better. These medicines include ACE inhibitors, beta blockers and spironolactone. They do not always work quickly, but over time can have a lot of benefit. Doctors usually prescribe beta blockers and spironolactone when you are doing well on your usual medicines because these medicines do not help you feel better right away.

What can I do to feel better?

  • Don't add salt to your food. Don't eat salty foods like canned foods, pickles, chips or processed meats, like ham and lunch meats.

  • Weigh yourself every day. Call your doctor if you gained more than a pound or two since the day before.

  • Take your medicines every day. If you have problems with your medicines, talk to your doctor before you stop taking them. Make sure you understand why you are taking each medicine. Tell your doctor if you think you are having any side effects.

Where can I get more information about heart failure?

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