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What are the Early Signs of Congestive Heart Failure?

Heart failure sounds scary, but it doesn’t mean that your heart just suddenly stops working. In fact, congestive heart failure is something that develops quite slowly. If you are able to spot the warning signs then you’ll be able to get help before the effects get too severe.

Heart Screening

What is Congestive Heart Failure?

Heart failure happens when your heart isn’t able to move blood around your body as well as it should. It is sometimes known as congestive heart failure because the blood is “congested” or unable to flow freely. This is usually because the heart muscle has become too weak or stiff to pump effectively.

The heart will do it’s best to work harder, which will increase the strain it is under. Other parts of your body can suffer too, because they won’t be getting the supply of oxygen and nutrients that they need. Fluid can also build up in your body, because your heart isn’t pumping strongly enough to keep the blood moving. The fluid is mainly water that leaks out of the capillaries, but it can be harmful when it builds up in areas such as the lungs.

The symptoms usually appear in older adults, but heart failure can happen at any age. It is often linked to heart conditions that can also cause other kinds of problems:

  • Cardiac arrhythmias or problems with the rhythm of your heart beat
  • Coronary heart disease, which could lead to angina or a heart attack
  • High blood pressure putting a strain on your heart
  • Issues such as congenital heart disease, heart valve problems or cardiomyopathies that prevent the heart from functioning properly

When you are diagnosed with heart failure, your cardiologist may be able to identify one of these underlying causes. You can then get treatment to address this issue alongside your heart failure. The first symptoms you spotted could therefore be an important warning sign that prevents you from experiencing a heart attack or another serious heart problem in the future.

Heart failure is a long term condition that can slowly get worse, especially if you aren’t getting treatment. With the right care, it’s possible to minimise the risks and control your symptoms for many years.

The Early Signs

Although heart failure can sometimes develop quickly , the symptoms often appear gradually over many weeks or months. Signs that you might be affected by heart failure include:

  • Feeling more tired than usual. You will feel worse after exercising, but you can also feel tired even when you haven’t done much physical activity or you’ve just woken up.
  • Breathlessness, which may only happen after you’ve been active at first, but can affect you even when you’re resting. It might get worse when you are lying down and could affect your sleep.
  • Not being able to do the things you usually do, which can be because you feel too tired or breathless.
  • Swelling, which is usually most noticeable in your feet and ankles. It might make your shoes feel tighter than usual. Swelling can also cause weight gain (which can be very sudden) because you’re retaining more fluid in your body.
  • A cough that doesn’t go away and isn’t associated with any signs of infection (such as a fever or sore throat).
  • Feeling your heart racing or beating faster.
  • Dizziness.

It’s easy to dismiss these kinds of symptoms. You might think that you’re just a bit unfit or that they are signs that you’re getting older. However, if you have multiple signs of heart failure, the symptoms appear or get worse suddenly, they last for a long time, or don’t seem to have an obvious cause (like giving up the gym) then it’s a good idea to see a doctor.

Later Symptoms

It’s important not to ignore the early signs of congestive heart failure, because your condition can get worse if you ignore them. The early symptoms are usually quite mild and easy to miss. However, they will gradually get worse if you don’t get treatment. Heart failure can even be fatal in severe cases. As the symptoms get worse, you might find that:

  • You have to restrict your physical activity
  • The symptoms start happening even when you’re resting
  • You develop new symptoms, such as palpitations, that weren’t there before
  • You experience symptoms associated with the underlying cause, such as angina (chest pain) if you have coronary heart disease

Heart failure is usually a chronic condition. The symptoms will usually get worse over time, but treatment can help to relieve them and slow the progression down. Treatment may also be able to address the underlying causes and can prevent serious complications such as a heart attack.

What to Do?

If you think that you might have the early symptoms of heart failure then you should see a doctor as soon as possible. The doctor can run some tests to confirm what’s wrong and work out the cause. You might need blood tests, an ECG or an echocardiogram. You can then start treatment to manage your condition.

Your doctor might recommend:

  • Some lifestyle changes to improve your cardiac health, such as losing weight or giving up smoking
  • Medication to relieve your symptoms, for example by reducing the swelling
  • A pacemaker to control your heart beat if you have an arrhythmia
  • Surgery to correct any structural problems with your heart
  • A heart transplant if the problems can’t be corrected

The treatment can be very effective, especially if you spotted the symptoms and were able to get help early. If the doctor can identify a specific cause (such as a damaged heart valve) it may even be possible to cure your heart failure completely.

If this is not possible, then you will need ongoing treatment to manage your condition. You might need to be more careful about your lifestyle and you might have to avoid some activities. However, the treatment you receive will enable you to live as full a life as possible, for as long as possible.

The treatment will work best when the problem is detected early. Could you spot the early signs of heart failure?