Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a chronic, progressive condition affecting nearly six million Americans. Approximately 670,000 new cases are diagnosed in the U.S. every year. CHF is the leading cause of hospitalization in people over age 65.
Individuals diagnosed with CHF face difficult questions. How can they minimize their symptoms and prolong their life? What does a CHF diagnosis mean for their lifestyle? What precautions do they need to take to mitigate the chance of a catastrophic event? If you are among the hundreds of thousands of individuals diagnosed with CHF this year, learn how to protect yourself and live in comfort with your condition.
What is Congestive Heart Failure?
CHF occurs when fluid builds up around the heart, causing it not efficiently to pump blood. With CHF, blood moves through the heart and body more slowly than average, causing pressure to increase in the heart. As a result, the heart cannot sufficiently pump oxygen and nutrients throughout the body. The heart’s chambers may stretch to try to hold more blood, or they may become thick and stuff. Eventually, the heart weakens and is unable to work effectively.
As the heart weakens, the kidneys may cause the body to retain salt and fluids. If fluid builds up in the arms, ankles legs, feet, lungs, or other organs and areas, such as the lungs, abdomen, and liver, the body becomes congested, leading to the condition name congestive heart failure.
What Causes Congestive Heart Failure?
You may develop CHF due to coronary artery disease (in which the arteries narrow) or high blood pressure. Such conditions gradually leave your heart too weak or stiff to work effectively. CHF is more common in people who are 65 years old or older. Men, African Americans, those who are overweight, and people who have had a heart attack are also at greater risk.
Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure
Congestive heart failure symptoms include:
- Swelling of the feet, ankles, and legs (edema)
- Tiredness and shortness of breath (dyspnea), particularly upon exertion or when lying down
- Fatigue and weakness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Swelling of your abdomen (ascites)
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Persistent cough or wheezing
- White or pink blood-tinged phlegm
- Sudden, severe shortness of breath
- Increased need to urinate at night
- Very rapid weight gain from fluid retention
- Lack of appetite and nausea
- Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
What to Do When You’re Diagnosed with Congestive Heart Failure?
Despite the word “failure” in the name, which can sound frightening to someone who receives a CHF diagnosis, individuals can live with CHF for years. Not all of CHF causes are reversible, but there are treatments and lifestyle changes that you can make to minimize symptoms and improve your lifestyle.
Your doctor will help you put together a treatment plan to minimize your symptoms based on the cause of your CHF. Some lifestyle changes that your doctor might recommend may include:
- Regular exercise
- Reducing your sodium intake
- Reducing your stress
- Weight loss
- Quitting smoking
- Eliminating alcohol
- Getting proper sleep
- Controlling high blood pressure
When to Talk to Your Doctor
If left untreated, CHF can be life-threatening. If you are experiencing any of the symptoms of CHF, talk to your doctor. If you are experiencing any of the following, seek immediate emergency care:
- Chest pain
- Fainting or severe weakness
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat, especially if accompanies by chest pain, shortness of breath, or fainting
- Sudden shortness of breath and coughing pink, foamy mucus
Congestive heart failure is a serious condition, but by collaborating with your doctor and making healthy lifestyle changes, you can minimize the disruptive symptoms and continue participating in your daily work and life activities.