Heart failure

Heart failure is a serious condition where your heart struggles to pump blood around your body. The good news is that heart failure can be controlled. Find out what you can do to feel better and lead a more normal life.

A healthy heart can pump blood to all parts of the body. Heart failure means that your heart can not pump blood as well as it should. 

In some cases, the heart cannot fill with enough blood. In other cases, the heart can't send blood to the rest of the body with enough force. Some people have both problems.

"When the doctor said I had heart failure, I thought my heart had just packed up. It was scary! But now I know that's wrong. Heart failure means that my heart's still pumping, it's just not pumping as strongly as it used to."

There are many factors that can contribute to developing heart failure, including:

  • Heart attack or angina
  • High blood pressure
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Heart valve problems
  • Drinking too much alcohol
  • Virus infection in the heart
  • Thyroid disease.

Symptoms can vary depending on how weak your heart is. First, you may become less able to cope physically. Climbing stairs or walking may leave you tired, weak and short of breath. Shortness of breath, especially when lying down flat, is caused by a build-up of fluid in the lungs (called pulmonary oedema), which makes it harder for the lungs to transfer oxygen to the blood.

Oedema (fluid build-up) may also cause swelling of the feet, legs and abdomen and rapid weight gain due to less blood reaching the kidneys, which prevents them from disposing of salt and water as they would normally.

Other symptoms include a wet cough (most often when lying down) and loss of appetite or nausea. You may also notice a rapid pulse rate.

You may be asked by your doctor to have some heart tests to check on your heart and the severity of your heart failure. These tests may include:

  • Blood tests
  • Chest X-ray. Chest X-ray shows the size of your heart and whether there is fluid build-up around the heart and lungs
  • Echocardiogram: This test shows the heart's movement
  • Electrocardiogram (ECG): ECG records the electrical impulses travelling through the heart
  • Cardiac catheterisation. This test is done under X-ray conditions
  • Coronary angiography
  • Stress Test. This test is performed under close supervision and requires you to exercise whilst being monitored to see how well your heart copes under pressure.

If you have heart failure, your doctor will monitor you closely. You will have follow-up appointments at least every 3 to 6 months and tests to check your heart function. For example, an ultrasound of your heart (echocardiogram) will be done once in a while to see how well your heart pumps blood with each beat.

Heart failure is a serious condition that can't usually be cured. Without management it will get worse - sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. The good news is that it can be controlled. By taking your medication, following your heart failure action plan and making some lifestyle changes you can feel better and lead a more normal life.

It's really important to do your daily checks and note down your daily check information, so you know if you have any changes in weight, swelling or breathing problems and can act quickly to follow your heart failure action plan.

Download: Daily checks and heart failure action plan PDF

You have an important role to play in your heart health. There are things you can do today to look after your heart and manage your heart failure:

  • Take your medications as directed. Carry a list of medications with you wherever you go.
  • Limit salt intake
  • Don't smoke
  • Stay active. Your doctor or practice nurse can provide a safe and effective exercise plan based on your degree of heart failure, and how well you do on tests that check the strength and function of your heart
  • Lose weight if you are overweight
  • Get enough rest, including after exercise, eating, or other activities. This allows your heart to rest as well.

For more information about staying well with heart failure, read our PDF resource.

Get the heart failure resource