Heart Failure

What is Heart Failure?
Heart failure occurs when the heart can’t pump enough blood to satisfy the needs of the body. The pumping power of the heart is reduced to below normal levels, which results in inadequate blood supply to other organs, such as the brain, liver and kidneys.

The signs and symptoms of heart failure depend on which side of the heart is affected, but can include:

  • Shortness of breath, either on exertion, or when lying down.  
  • Tiredness and fatigue.  
  • Asthma due to the heart problem.  
  • Swelling due to excess water in the body (particularly swollen ankles).  
  • Blueness (or duskiness) of the skin.  
  • Enlargement of the heart.

How do you get Heart Failure?
Heart failure has many causes. The main causes include coronary artery disease (hardening of the arteries), which can lead to a heart attack and/or weakness of the heart muscle, and untreated or uncontrolled high blood pressure, which can cause heart failure even without a heart attack. Other causes may include diseases of the heart valves and weakened heart muscle due to viral infections or their poisonous products (called toxins).

How serious is Heart Failure?
Heart failure is a serious condition that may not be detected at its earliest stages. In its later stages it can have a major effect on quality of life and feeling of wellbeing. In advanced stages, patients may become inactive or bed ridden and unable to perform normal functions and it can be life-threatening. Heart failure is a major cause of sudden death due to production of arrhythmias. Persons with diabetes have a much greater risk of developing heart failure than those without because diabetes is associated with other heart failure risk factors such as high blood pressure, obesity and High cholesterol levels.

How long does Heart Failure last?
Doctors know that when heart failure is detected and confirmed, the patient may have had the condition for some time, possibly several months or even years.

  • This is because, over time, it is a progressive disease and is predicted to gradually get worse, but in its earliest stages it may not produce any obvious symptoms.  
  • Identifying people with the disease at an early stage is important so that treatment can be given to try to prevent it becoming more advanced and even life-threatening.  
  • Patients with heart failure will have the condition, to some degree, probably for the rest of their lives. For many, the changes in the heart muscle caused by the disease are not reversible but the symptoms and outcome can be dramatically changed with medicines.

How is Heart Failure treated?
Heart failure is treated with a variety of medicines that have several aims; to improve the pumping action of the heart, reverse abnormal changes in the heart muscle, improve quality of life and prolong life expectancy. They include:

  • Diuretics, or water tablets, which work on the kidneys to remove the extra fluid and salt from the body and lower blood pressure.  
  • ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors, which lower blood pressure and help the heart to pump more easily. They work by blocking the production of a hormone (a chemical signal carried in the blood) called angiotensin II.  
  • Digoxin helps the heart by making it beat more strongly and pump more blood.  
  • Nitrates help with shortness of breath because they reduce the blood pressure in the lungs by widening (dilating) blood vessels and allow the heart to work more efficiently.  
  • Warfarin stops blood clots from forming.  
  • Aspirin also stops blood clots from forming.  
  • Patients may also be able to help themselves by making lifestyle changes such as stopping smoking and eating a healthy diet containing fruit, vegetables and fibre.

Johns Hopkins patient information

Last revised:

Diseases and Conditions Center

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All ArmMed Media material is provided for information only and is neither advice nor a substitute for proper medical care. Consult a qualified healthcare professional who understands your particular history for individual concerns.