What are the symptoms of heart failure?

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

The body’s tendency to hold onto salt and water cause most of the signs and symptoms. These signs and symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath with exertion
  • Swelling of the feet and/or ankles
  • Difficulty falling asleep flat in bed (needing to prop oneself up in bed in order to sleep comfortably)
  • Awakening during the night feeling as if you cannot breathe
  • Swelling of the abdomen with a feeling of “bloating,” lack of appetite with this symptom.

All or some of these symptoms can be present. Some of these signs or symptoms can be present in other disease states as well. If you have these signs or symptoms, please see your doctor.

Dr. Jeanne Morrison, PhD
Family Practitioner

Heart failure often comes on gradually with increasing shortness of breath, especially with activity and exertion. The shortness of breath may become worse when lying supine. Some people may awaken feeling short of breath with improvement after they get up to “get some air.”

Swelling with excess fluid (edema) in the legs may become gradually worse and may extend to swelling in the abdomen. Weakness, nausea and other feelings may be present. Cough, rapid breathing and bluish discoloration (cyanosis) of the hands, feet and lips may happen.

Because there are many causes of heart failure, your physician will run tests such as a chest X-ray, electrocardiogram, blood tests and other studies to determine the cause. Some underlying causes are specifically treatable. Some causes of heart failure cannot be treated but may respond to treatments such as diuretics to remove excess fluid and other medications which improve the effectiveness of the pumping action of the heart. Some causes of heart failure may be corrected or improved with surgery. If other treatments fail, then treatment with heart transplantation may be an option.

The main symptoms of congestive heart failure are shortness of breath and fluid retention. Weight gain, ankle swelling, weakness and problems with walking and climbing stairs are common.

Trouble with breathing or shortness of breath, which is known as dyspnea, is a common symptom of heart failure. This happens when excess fluid builds in the lungs, which is known as pulmonary edema. As the build up of fluid increases, it may cause difficulty in breathing that interferes with sleep.

The accumulation of fluid, known as edema, can cause swelling and weight gain, which can occur fairly quickly.

Fatigue is another symptom of heart failure. This occurs as fluid buildup increases and the heart's pumping capacity decreases. Heart failure patients tire increasingly easily. Initially, climbing stairs is difficult. Eventually, walking and getting dressed become difficult, too.

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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.