Heart failure – what is it?

Heart failure is common and although the term heart failure sounds alarming, it is simply a technical term for a weak heart muscle. This means the heart does not pump as well as it used to. Therefore, it is less efficient at delivering oxygen and nutrients to muscles and organs and returning waste products to the kidneys and lungs.

Heart failure is not the same as a heart attack, although it can develop as a result of a heart attack.

Heart failure becomes more common with increasing age. At least one in a hundred 55 year olds and one in ten 80 year olds have some degree of heart failure.

Signs & Symptoms of Chronic Heart Failure

The symptoms of Heart Failure may appear quickly, for instance after a Heart Attack, or may develop slowly over weeks or even months. They include:

  • Difficulty breathing, especially with exertion or when lying flat in bed. This is a common symptom of Heart Failure and maybe due to fluid collecting in the lungs. This may also lead to:
    • Waking during the night with breathlessness.
    • A dry hacking cough, especially when lying down.

Other symptoms include:

  • Tiredness and weakness. Especially following exercise or when you do activities such as housework. This is partly due to reduced blood flow to the exercising muscles.
  • Swollen feet, ankles, legs and abdomen (stomach). These are further signs of fluid building up in your body, and are due to gravity and the effort it takes for the heart to pump your blood up from your feet.
  • Weight gain. As your body retains extra fluid, due to your heart not pumping efficiently, you will gain extra weight. Weight gain can happen rapidly, for example, up to 2 to 3 pounds (1 kilogram) in two days or 5 to 6 pounds (2 to 3 kilograms) in a week. In other cases, there may be slow progressive weight gain, which is not due to overeating. These may be signs that your heart failure is not fully controlled.
  • Appetite reduction. Appetite may reduce if fluid is retained around the stomach / gut wall.

Breathlessness and swollen ankles should always be reported to the heart failure team but these signs are not always due to Heart Failure!

Last updated: October 3, 2017