Health Break | Published February 6, 2006 | Written by Allison Lee Snyder, RN

Living With Heart Failure

Heart failure happens when the heart and lungs have become filled with fluid. This happens when the heart is weak and unable to pump blood as well as it should. The excess fluid backs up in the heart and lungs, as well as the feet, ankles and legs.

Heart failure does not mean that your heart has suddenly stopped working, but rather that your heart is not pumping as well as it should to deliver oxygen-rich blood to your body's cells.

When the heart does not pump as well as it should, it’s usually due to some other condition. Conditions that can lead to heart failure include: coronary artery disease, heart attacks, high blood pressure, problems with heart valves, cardiomyopathy (disease of the heart muscle), heart defects, lung disease and diabetes.

What are the symptoms of heart failure?

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath

  • Swelling of the ankles, feet, legs or abdomen

  • Lack of energy, feeling tired

  • Persistent cough

  • Waking at night with breathlessness

  • Weight gain of 2-3 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week

  • Chest pain

  • Feeling faint/dizzy

  • Unable to do usual activities

Watch your diet and weigh yourself daily

If you are at risk for heart failure or living with heart failure, there are some precautions you can take. Most importantly, you need to watch your salt intake and limit your fluid consumption. Salt makes your body hold water, therefore making your heart failure symptoms worse. Give yourself time to get used to eating less salt. You may not like it at first, but your heart is worth it. To reduce your salt intake:

  • Move the saltshaker off the table. Don’t add salt to your food before you taste it.

  • Use vegetables that are fresh, frozen without sauce or canned with no salt added.

  • Avoid smoked, cured and processed meats.

  • Try recipes from low-salt cookbooks.

Weigh yourself at the same time every morning, wearing the same thing. Weigh after urinating and before eating. Write down your weight each day and call the doctor right away if you gain 2-3 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week. Your doctor may need to change your treatment plan if you are retaining water.


Always be cautious not to overexert yourself, but a little bit of activity every day can help everyone feel better; so, don’t let heart failure stop you from being active. On days that you feel good, plan an activity like a short walk, a visit to a friend or a little shopping. Stop and rest if you feel short of breath. You’ll probably have good days and bad days, so know your limits and don’t push yourself. Your doctor can help you develop activity guidelines or even an exercise program.

Taking medications

A heart failure treatment plan may include medications for heart failure and/or for the conditions that may have weakened the heart in the first place. It is important to take medications as prescribed. Even if starting to feel better, people with heart failure issues should not stop taking their medications or change their dosage unless their doctor tells them to. Before taking any over-the-counter medications, including herbs and vitamins, these should first be approved by the patient’s doctor.

Take care of yourself

If you notice an increase in any heart failure symptoms, notify your doctor right away. The sooner you call, the better your chances are of staying out of the hospital.

Follow-up visits are crucial to managing heart failure. Be sure to keep doctor appointments and bring a list of all of medications to the doctor’s office. Heart failure won’t go away entirely, but the patient and doctor can work together to help make life more comfortable.

Allison Lee Snyder, RN, is a performance improvement nurse at Mount Nittany Medical Center.