What is Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)?
By Kathy Ferguson, RN, Parish Nurse
Above all else, guard your heart, for everything you do flows from it. Proverbs 4:23
Happy Heart Month! February is American Heart Month. During this month we focus on things related to our heart and how to keep it healthy. Many of you have probably heard of heart failure or congestive heart failure (CHF). According to the CDC, about 6.2 million adults in the United States have heart failure. This is not a rare condition. But do you know what it is? It does not mean that the heart has stopped working completely. However, it has stopped working effectively. CHF occurs when the heart muscle doesn’t pump blood as well as it should. When this happens, blood often backs up and fluid can build up in the lungs, causing shortness of breath. This article will provide additional information about CHF, causes, and potential treatments.
Heart failure is a condition that develops when your heart doesn’t pump enough blood for your body’s needs. This can happen if your heart can’t fill up with enough blood. Heart failure can develop suddenly (the acute kind) or over time as your heart gets weaker (the chronic kind).
Your risk of heart failure goes up if you have one or more of these risk factors (NIH: National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute):
- Age. People 65 years or older have a higher risk of heart failure because aging can weaken and stiffen your heart.
- Family history. Your risk of heart failure is higher if people in your family have been diagnosed with heart failure.
- Lifestyle habits. An unhealthy diet, smoking, using illegal drugs, heavy alcohol use, and lack of physical activity can raise your risk of heart failure.
- Other medical conditions. Any heart or blood vessel condition, serious lung disease, or infection may raise your risk of heart failure. Long-term health conditions such as obesity, high blood pressure, diabetes, sleep apnea, chronic kidney disease, anemia, thyroid disease, or iron overload also raise your risk. Atrial fibrillation, a common type of irregular heart rhythm, can also cause heart failure.
- Race or ethnicity. African Americans are more likely to have heart failure than people of other races.
- Gender. Heart failure is common in both men and women, although men often develop heart failure at a younger age than women.
Congestive heart failure can affect the right side or the left side of the heart or both. Usually, left-sided heart failure precedes right-sided failure. According to Mayo Clinic, symptoms of heart failure include:
- Shortness of breath with activity or when lying down
- Fatigue and weakness
- Swelling in the legs, ankles, and feet
- Rapid or irregular heartbeat
- Reduced ability to exercise
- Persistent cough or wheezing
- Swelling of the belly area
- Very rapid weight gain from fluid buildup
- Nausea and lack of appetite
- Difficulty concentrating or decreased alertness
- Chest pain if heart failure is caused by a heart attack
The most common signs of CHF that I have seen are shortness of breath, swelling in the feet and ankles, and rapid weight gain.
Heart failure has no cure. But treatment can help you live a longer, more active life with fewer symptoms. Treatment depends on the type of heart failure you have and how serious it is but usually includes lifestyle changes and medicines. CHF treatment usually involves:
- Taking medicines
- Reducing sodium in the diet
- Reducing liquid intake
- Getting daily physical activity
- Checking daily weights and monitoring for other symptoms of CHF
See your doctor if you think you might be experiencing signs or symptoms of heart failure. Call 911 or emergency medical help if you have chest pain, fainting or severe weakness, rapid or irregular heartbeat associated with shortness of breath or chest pain, or sudden severe shortness of breath and coughing.
Happy Heart Month! Be well.
CDC. (2020). Heart disease: Heart failure. https://www.cdc.gov/heartdisease/heart_failure.htm
Mayo Clinic. (n.d.). Heart failure. https://www.mayoclinic.org/diseases-conditions/heart-failure/symptoms-causes/syc-20373142
National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute. (n.d.). Heart failure. https://www.nhlbi.nih.gov/health-topics/heart-failure