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Overview of heart failure

Heart failure happens when your heart cannot pump blood around your body as well as it should. It doesn't mean your heart is about to stop – just that is not working as well as it used to.

The problem can be that your heart muscle is weaker and cannot produce enough force when pumping, or that the pumping chamber of your heart (ventricle) is not able to fill with as much blood.

Heart disease, especially if you've had a heart attack, is the commonest cause of a weak heart. Having untreated high blood pressure for a long time is the commonest cause of a heart that cannot fill properly.

Other conditions that can lead to heart failure include problems with heart valves, disease of the heart muscle (cardiomyopathy), heart rhythm problems including atrial fibrillation, diabetes, viral infections and too much alcohol.

Preventing heart failure

Following the advice on Preventing angina and heart attacks will reduce your chance of getting heart failure.

It is also important to have your blood pressure checked and treated if needed.

Symptoms of heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure develop slowly and can vary from person to person. They include:

This video explains how heart failure causes fluid to build up in your body, causing these symptoms.

Diagnosing heart failure

If you're getting symptoms of heart failure, your GP will need to examine you to check for fluid build-up.

They may also arrange some tests such as an ECG, echocardiogram and blood tests.

Treating heart failure

Medications known as diuretics are used to treat your symptoms by getting rid of the extra fluid. Other medications are used to help your heart pump better and may help you live longer.

Some people need a device such as a pacemaker, cardiac resynchronisation therapy pacemaker (CRT-P) or implantable cardioverter defibrillator (ICD) to help manage their heart failure.

Heart surgery is sometimes needed depending on the cause of the heart failure. For example, a faulty heart valve may need replacing.

Self-care for heart failure

You can monitor your heart failure by doing daily checks of your weight, swelling and breathing. This means you can get treatment for fluid build-up before it causes a major problem.

Eating well and limiting your salt and alcohol intake will help with heart failure.

Take any prescribed medications regularly. While taking fluid tablets can be a nuisance, they're very important to stop your body holding on to too much fluid.

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On the next page: Treating heart failure

Written by HealthInfo clinical advisers. Last reviewed December 2021.

Page reference: 553545

Review key: HIHFA-27478