Types of Heart Disease: Congestive Heart Failure

By Spader, Catherine, RN

Congestive heart failure is a serious disease and life-threatening symptoms can occur without warning. Living with the uncertainty of congestive heart failure is frightening, but there is much you can do to manage your symptoms and improve your quality of life.

What Happens in Congestive Heart Failure?

Congestive heart failure, also called heart failure and congestive heart disease, is caused by damage to your heart. Conditions that can damage your heart include coronary artery disease, heart attack, heart valve disease, and heart infection. Congenital heart diseases can also lead to congestive heart failure, as can cardiomyopathy, an enlargement or scarring of your heart muscle.

When your heart is damaged, it can’t pump blood effectively. Blood begins to back up in your body and you may start to notice symptoms such as:

  • Chest pain

  • Fatigue

  • Loose cough and difficulty breathing because of fluid buildup in your lungs

  • Swelling of your feet, ankles, legs, arms, belly, and face

  • Weight gain

Who Gets Congestive Heart Failure?

If you have congestive heart failure, you aren’t alone. Nearly five million Americans have the disease. It is most common in people older than 65 years of age, according to the Heart Failure Society (Source: HFS).

Any disease or condition that increases the risk of developing heart disease also increases your risk of congestive heart failure. You might be at risk if you have any of the following:

  • African American ancestry

  • Coronary heart disease

  • Diabetes

  • Excessive alcohol consumption

  • High cholesterol

  • Personal or family history of heart disease or heart attack

  • High blood pressure

  • Obesity

  • Sedentary lifestyle

  • Smoking

  • Kidney disease

  • Heart arrhythmias

What Can I Do About Congestive Heart Failure?

When you have congestive heart failure, you may not have the energy or strength to do all you want to do. You may also have episodes of life-threatening problems, such as fluid buildup in your lungs. Fortunately, you can help improve your heart function and symptoms with treatments that can boost your energy level and help you live the most active life possible.

Lifestyle changes can help improve your overall health and reduce your risk of some serious complications. Start by maintaining a healthy weight and following your doctor’s advice for how much exercise and rest is ideal for you. It’s also important to eat a low-sodium, heart-healthy diet that is low in saturated fat and trans fats. Excessive salt increases swelling and blood pressure. Ask your doctor about cardiac rehabilitation and physical therapy. These treatments strengthen your body, reduce fatigue, and improve alertness.

Treating congestive heart failure often involves treating the underlying cause if possible. For example, if you have a heart arrhythmia, then controlling it may reverse your heart failure. However, for most people with congestive heart failure, medications are the cornerstone of treatment. There are many types and brands of medications that treat heart failure. Examples include aldosterone blockers; diuretics; ACE inhibitors and angiotensin II receptor blockers (ARBs); digitalis drugs; and beta-blockers.

Surgery may also be an option in some cases. Your doctor may recommend surgery to correct an underlying heart problem or to place a device that will help your heart pump. If you meet the criteria, you may even be a candidate for a heart transplant.

Despite your best efforts and treatments, sometimes congestive heart failure progresses. If this happens, palliative care and hospice care are available. These team approaches provide comfort and support to improve the overall quality of life for people with end-stage congestive heart failure. This type of care is often provided at home.

Medical Reviewer: McDonough, Brian, MD Copyright: © Copyright 2011 Health Grades, Inc. All rights reserved. May not be reproduced or reprinted without permission from Health Grades, Inc. Use of this information is governed by the HealthGrades User Agreement.

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When the heart muscle's blood supply is cut off, heart muscle cells fail to get enough oxygen and begin to die. What is this called?