What is congestive heart failure?

Dr. Mehmet Oz, MD
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

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.


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.

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.

Linda Martinez
Cardiac Rehabilitation Specialist

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.

Joan Haizlip, MSN
Cardiologist (Heart Specialist)

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 (CHF) is when a patient has excess fluid in the lungs. It can be identified with an EKG.

Congestive heart failure, or CHF, is a condition that occurs when the heart is unable to pump blood sufficiently. Despite its name, a diagnosis of heart failure does NOT mean the heart is about to stop beating. Some causes of CHF, or weakening of the heart muscle, may include, but are not limited to, the following:

  • heart attack (also called myocardial infarction, or MI)
  • viral infection of the heart muscle
  • high blood pressure (hypertension)
  • valvular heart disease
  • congenital (present at birth) heart conditions
  • cardiac arrhythmias (irregular heartbeats)
  • pulmonary hypertension (elevated blood pressure within the lungs' blood vessels)
  • alcoholism or drug abuse
  • chronic lung diseases, such as emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease
  • cardiomyopathy (an enlargement of the heart muscle)
  • anemia (low red blood cell count)

High blood pressure is probably the most common cause of congestive heart failure, because high blood pressure over many years causes the heart to strain. It struggles with pumping that high pressure around the body, causing the muscle to get thick and then weak. Unfortunately, some people have no idea that they have high blood pressure until they have a stroke or heart attack or go into congestive heart failure.

Other causes of congestive heart failure include:

  • weakened heart muscle (cardiomyopathy)
  • damaged heart valves
  • blocked blood vessels supplying the heart muscle (coronary arteries), which may lead to a heart attack
  • toxic exposures, such as alcohol or cocaine
  • infections, commonly viruses, which for unknown reasons affect the heart in only certain individuals
  • congenital heart diseases
  • certain genetic diseases involving the heart
  • prolonged, serious arrhythmias

Continue Learning about Heart Disease

5 Ways To Protect Your Heart in Cold Weather
5 Ways To Protect Your Heart in Cold Weather
Each year, around 100 Americans die while shoveling snow, or shortly afterward. Hundreds more are hospitalized for related heart problems. Most are me...
Read More
How is aortic stenosis diagnosed?
Dr. Mark J. Russo, MDDr. Mark J. Russo, MD
Persons with AS often have no symptoms, but detection of a murmur may be discovered during a routine...
More Answers
Top 4 Heart Attack Signs in Women
Top 4 Heart Attack Signs in WomenTop 4 Heart Attack Signs in WomenTop 4 Heart Attack Signs in WomenTop 4 Heart Attack Signs in Women
Women may not recognize these other symptoms as signs of a heart attack.
Start Slideshow
What Is the Prevalance of Cornary Heart Disease?
What Is the Prevalance of Cornary Heart Disease?

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.