Healthbeat

Stay on top of heart failure symptoms

Heart failure — this dire-sounding term often brings to mind a heart that has beat its last. Not so. Heart failure means that the heart isn't able to pump enough blood to meet the body's needs. Common effects of heart failure include fatigue, shortness of breath, and swelling in the legs.

Many people are surprised to learn that heart failure is often a manageable condition. Taking medications, balancing exercise and rest, following a low-sodium diet, and being careful about fluid intake can help keep it in check. But heart failure can be unpredictable. After a long stretch of being under control, it can flare up, and even require a hospital stay.

Sometimes these flare-ups come from out of the blue, caused by an infection or a medication. Most of the time, though, they creep up, announcing themselves with subtle changes like being more tired than usual or quickly gaining several pounds.

Warning signs of worsening heart failure

If you have heart failure, call your doctor if you notice any of these signs:

  • Sudden weight gain (2–3 pounds in one day or 5 or more pounds in one week)
  • Extra swelling in the feet or ankles
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen
  • Shortness of breath not related to exercise
  • Discomfort or trouble breathing when lying flat
  • Waking up feeling short of breath
  • Coughing or wheezing
  • Increased fatigue
  • Mental confusion
  • Loss of appetite

Keeping track

To effectively monitor your symptoms, you need to know the signs of trouble. This can be tricky because symptoms may seem to come and go and it can be hard to tell the difference between the side effects of medications and the symptoms of heart failure itself, especially if they're mild.

Even small shifts can be significant. By writing down any new symptoms or changes in existing ones, you can track changes over time. At the end of each day, fill in your symptoms and note their severity on a scale of one to five.

As you look at your records, ask yourself:

  • Are there any patterns in my symptoms?
  • Do my symptoms seem to be getting better or worse?
  • Am I having any new symptoms?
  • Is there anything I haven't written down?

Most important, stay in close communication with your doctor and healthcare team. Together you can catch changes in your condition early and help avoid complications.

For more on diagnosing and managing heart failure, buy Diagnosis: Heart Failure, a Special Health Report from Harvard Medical School.