What is congestive heart failure?

Kenneth H. Zelnick, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
Congestive Heart Failure (CHF) is when a patient has excess fluid in the lungs, says Kenneth Zelnick, MD, of Westside Regional Medical Center. Learn more about congestive heart failure and how it can be identified with an EKG in this video.
Jason S. Sperling, MD
Thoracic Surgery (Cardiothoracic Vascular)
Congestive heart failure is a diminishment of the heart's efficiency. In this video, Jason Sperling, MD, director of HealthONE Cardiac Surgery, describes how congestive heart failure affects the body, including the lungs and extremities.  
Linda Martinez
Cardiac Rehabilitation
CHF, also called heart failure is a medical condition where the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as it should, resulting in a lack of adequate blood flow to vital organs.
Congestive heart failure occurs when the heart is unable to maintain an adequate circulation of blood in the tissues of the body. This weakening of the heart prevents it from circulating oxygen to the body's tissues. It is called congestive heart failure mainly due to the symptoms of fluid accumulating in the legs (pedal edema) and the lungs.
Joan Haizlip, MSN
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)

  Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition where your heart suddenly stops being able to pump blood effectively.  The heart is basically a pump.  If the pump fails, or weakens, blood cannot be pumped to the rest of the body and signs and symptoms of heart failure occur:


- shortness of breath (dyspnea)


- unable to lie flat (orthopnea)


- swelling in the feet and legs (edema)


- confusion


- fatigue

Congestive heart failure is a chronic, long-term condition that occurs when the heart is not strong enough to effectively pump blood to the rest of the body. As the heart struggles to work harder, it may become enlarged. Fluid may build up in other parts of the body, resulting in swelling of the feet and ankles and causing fluid to collect in the lungs. Patients with advanced heart failure report shortness of breath and feel tired when they exert themselves.

More than 500,000 people are diagnosed with congestive heart failure each year in the United States. Some patients benefit from drug therapy. But others may require a heart transplant or other intervention.

Johns Hopkins Medicine

The term "heart failure" can be very alarming. While it does not mean the heart has "failed" or stopped working, it is a serious condition. Congestive heart failure (CHF) implies the heart does not pump as well as it should to meet the body's oxygen demands, often due to heart diseases (like cardiomyopathy or cardiovascular disease).

CHF can result from either a reduced ability of the heart muscle to contract or from a mechanical problem that limits the ability of the heart's chambers to fill with blood. When weakened, the heart is unable to keep up with the demands placed upon it; blood returns to the heart faster than it can be pumped out so that it gets backed up or congested.

CHF occurs when the heart attempts to compensate for the congestion, or backup, of blood in a number of ways. It beats faster and expands somewhat more than usual as it fills with blood, so that when it contracts, more blood is forced out to the body. In addition, the decreased volume of blood reaching the kidneys causes them to start a hormonal cascade, which causes them to retain sodium and water. These efforts help meet the body's demands in the short term, but they ultimately have very harmful long-term effects. Faster beating allows less time for the heart to refill after contraction, so less blood ends up being circulated. The increased effort means the heart muscle needs more oxygen, and if this need isn't met, it can be fatal.

CHF occurs most frequently in those over age 60 and is the leading cause of hospitalization and death in that age group. In over 50 percent of cases, sudden death occurs due to a cardiac arrhythmia, or irregular heartbeat.

Patients with CHF can enjoy better health if they treat the underlying cause, if possible. For many patients the outlook is uncertain and depends on the extent of the disease and the patient's response to therapy. However, in other cases, restricted salt intake and medication are used to ease the strain on the heart and to relieve symptoms. While CHF is a serious health risk, it is possible for patients to live with CHF and manage many symptoms effectively with proper treatment if they adhere to prescribed regimens.

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiology (Cardiovascular Disease)
If you have heart failure, your heart cannot pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. Your body holds on to water and salt to increase the amount of blood in circulation, leading to a build up of fluids called congestion. Watch this animation to learn more about this condition.

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Important: This content reflects information from various individuals and organizations and may offer alternative or opposing points of view. It should not be used for medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. As always, you should consult with your healthcare provider about your specific health needs.