Heart Failure Information for patients

What is Heart Failure?

The term ‘heart failure’ is rather alarming and does not mean that the heart has completely failed or that it is about to stop.  It is simply a medical term used when the heart muscle is not working as efficiently as it should.  This may be because the muscle has weakened and is not able to pump strongly, or because the muscle has become stiff and is unable to relax to allow blood in to the pumping chamber.  It may also be due to one or more of the heart valves not working properly, or because of an abnormal heart rhythm putting strain on your heart muscle.  The heart pumps oxygen and nutrients around the body but the ability to function as an effective pump is reduced in heart failure.  It also becomes more difficult for the heart to send waste products back to the kidneys and lungs. This means that fluid can build up in the body resulting in swollen feet, ankles and legs. If fluid builds up in the lungs it can cause shortness of breath. 

What causes Heart Failure?

There are many different causes and they include:

  • Heart attack/angina (also called ischaemic heart disease)
  • High blood pressure
  • Heart valve disease
  • Infection of the heart muscle
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Excessive alcohol consumption
  • Abnormalities of the heart rhythm
  • Amyloid

Sometimes it is difficult to pinpoint the cause of a person’s heart failure.

What are the symptoms of Heart Failure?

Shortness of breath, cough, difficulty in breathing

This is often noticeable when carrying out some form of activity or when taking exercise.  However, some people become short of breath on minimal exertion or even at rest.  Waking up at night feeling breathless is quite common and many people find that they need to prop themselves up with plenty of pillows because they are unable to tolerate lying flat.

Tiredness & weakness

When the heart is not pumping properly it has difficulty sending blood and oxygen to the muscles.  This can result in tiredness on light activity or even at rest.

Swollen feet, ankles, legs and abdomen

The inefficient pumping action of the heart results in the body’s inability to get rid of excess fluid.  This can lead to swelling of the lower half of the body.

Weight gain

This may occur slowly over a period of time.  On the other hand, it can happen very quickly over a day or two and is due to a build-up of excess fluid.

How is Heart Failure treated?


The symptoms of heart failure can be relieved to a certain extent with medication.  Some of the more common medicines that are used to treat heart failure are listed in this booklet.  We have also mentioned some of the side effects.  Do not be overly concerned about these, as many people do not experience any problems.  If you do notice any changes that you feel may be a side effect of your medicines, mention it to your heart failure nurse or GP. 

Lifestyle Changes and Self-Management

Another way of managing your heart failure is to make a few lifestyle changes where appropriate.  Small changes can really improve the way you feel.  You can also monitor your own condition to look for signs of worsening heart failure.

The main things to consider are:

  • Monitor the amount of fluid in the body by daily weighing
  • Keeping an eye on your fluid intake
  • Stopping smoking
  • Stopping or cutting down on alcohol if advised to do so
  • Reducing weight if necessary
  • Remaining as active as possible
  • Avoiding certain ‘over-the-counter’ medicines
  • Having a yearly ‘flu-jab’ and one-off vaccinations