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Knowing the Symptoms of Heart Failure Can Save Your Life

Melody Stopher Heart Health

Most of us know what a heart attack is—and how important it is to get medical help as soon as possible. However, there is another common and serious heart condition that is not as well understood by people outside of the medical community: congestive heart failure (CHF).

Those words may sound frightening and permanent, but the reality is that CHF doesn’t typically lead to immediate death. The “failure” part of the name doesn’t mean that the heart stops working altogether; rather, it means the heart is no longer functioning as well as it should. It’s not pumping efficiently, so not enough oxygen-rich blood gets to certain areas of the body. As a result, fluid can build up in the feet, lungs, abdomen or other parts of the body. Eventually, the condition can cause irreversible damage to the heart, kidneys, liver and other vital organs.

CHF is more common than you’re probably aware of. According to the American Heart Association, nearly six million Americans are living with heart failure, and nearly one in five of us will develop the condition at some point in our lives.

While it is true that CHF can’t be cured in most cases and can cause death if it’s left untreated, the vast majority of people with the condition can live active and full lives—if their CHF is diagnosed early enough and if they follow the guidelines to keep their condition in check.

For that reason, it’s important to detect CHF as early as possible. Sometimes the symptoms are subtle or seem unrelated to a heart issue. For instance, if your ankles appear normal at the beginning of the day but are spilling over the tops of your shoes by the end of the day, it could be from fluid that accumulates as a result of your heart’s inability to move blood efficiently through your lower legs.

Changes in activity level can also be a sign of CHF. If your mom used to love long days of shopping with you but now can hardly walk from the car into a store without becoming short of breath, she may be experiencing CHF and not be aware of it.

Symptoms of the condition include:

  • Shortness of breath.
  • Wheezing or coughing when you’re exerting yourself.
  • Weakness or extreme tiredness after only a little effort.
  • Problems breathing when lying flat. This can include needing to sleep in a recliner or propped up on pillows in bed.
  • Waking up at night from coughing and/or shortness of breath.
  • Rapid weight gain—three pounds in one day or five pounds in a week.
  • Swelling in the abdomen, ankles and/or feet.
  • A racing or skipping heartbeat.
  • Dizziness or fainting.

If you have any of these symptoms, it’s time to make an appointment with your physician. Whether or not you are ultimately diagnosed with CHF, all of these symptoms indicate some sort of health issue that requires medical attention.

A very important note: If you’re experiencing shortness of breath and/or a racing heart, skip the call to your doctor’s office and go straight to the Emergency Room. These symptoms can indicate a potentially life-threatening condition that requires immediate intervention.

Although a diagnosis of CHF can be frightening, there are many options for treating it, both with medication and lifestyle changes. Some hospitals offer programs that help CHF patients monitor their condition. Simi Valley Hospital’s Home Health Services, for instance, has a Readmission Prevention Program that provides a blood pressure cuff, a bathroom scale and a pill organizer, along with thorough education on how to use these tools to help manage CHF.

Melody Stopher, RN, BSN, PHN, is the clinical manager for Adventist Health Home Care Services at Simi Valley Hospital.