Health / Health conditions

Heart Failure: 11 Ways to Feel Better

Woman with heart failure

Many people don’t understand what heart failure is because the name makes it seem like the heart has stopped—or is about to stop—working. However, heart failure actually means that the heart isn’t pumping enough blood to meet the body’s needs.

In most cases, heart failure is caused by diseases that damage the heart, such as coronary artery disease, heart attack, high blood pressure, and diabetes. While heart failure is a serious medical condition, the National Institutes of Health recommends a number of steps you can take to feel better and prevent the condition from becoming worse. 

Know the signs and symptoms

When the heart isn’t pumping well, it can cause fluid to build up in your body. This can lead to symptoms such as:

  • Shortness of breath or trouble breathing
  • Tiredness
  • Swelling in the ankles, feet, legs, abdomen, and veins in the neck

When symptoms start, you may feel tired and short of breath after routine physical effort, like climbing stairs. As your heart grows weaker, symptoms are likely to get worse. You may begin to feel tired and short of breath after getting dressed or walking across the room. Some people have shortness of breath while lying flat.

Fluid buildup from heart failure also causes weight gain, frequent urination, and a cough that's worse at night and when you're lying down. This cough may be a sign of acute pulmonary edema. This is a condition in which too much fluid builds up in your lungs. It requires emergency treatment.

What you can do to feel better

By working closely with your healthcare team and making heart-healthy choices, you can help reduce your symptoms and feel better.

  1. Treat and control any conditions that can cause heart failure. 
    If you have diabetes or high blood pressure, work with your healthcare team to identify ways you may be able to control these conditions. Talk with your doctor about when you should have tests and how often to take measurements at home.
  2. Take medicines as your doctor prescribes.
    Your doctor will prescribe medicines based on the type of heart failure you have, how severe it is, and your response to certain medicines. Don’t change the amount of your medicine or skip a dose unless your doctor tells you to. Make sure your doctors and your pharmacist have a complete list of all of the medicines and over-the-counter products that you're taking.
  3. Watch for signs that your heart failure is getting worse. 
    For example, weight gain may mean that fluids are building up in your body. Ask your doctor how often you should check your weight and when to report weight changes. It’s also important to know when to seek emergency care.
  4. Keep all of your medical appointments.
    This includes visits to the doctor and appointments to get tests and lab work. Your doctor needs the results of these tests to adjust your medication doses and help you avoid harmful side effects.
  5. Talk with your doctor about how active you can and should be. 
    This includes advice on daily activities, work, leisure time, and exercise. 
  6.  Avoid or limit alcohol.
    Ask your doctor if any amount of alcohol is safe or if you should avoid it altogether. 
  7. Eat a heart-healthy diet that is lower in sodium. 
    Fill your plate with foods such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, fish, and lean meats. Be sure to limit sodium (salt), saturated and trans fats, and added sugars.
  8. Aim for a healthy weight.
    If you are overweight, losing even a small amount of weight can make a difference in your heart health.
  9. Quit smoking.
    If you need help quitting, ask your doctor for resources that can help.
  10. Take care of your emotional health.
    Living with heart failure may cause fear, anxiety, depression, and stress. Talk about how you feel with your healthcare team. Talking to a professional counselor or joining a patient support group also can help. 
  11. Get vaccinated.
    To help avoid respiratory infections, get vaccinated against the flu and pneumonia. 

For more information on heart failure, the National Institutes of Health offers many informative articles at Medline Plus.

You should consult a physician in all matters relating to your health, and particularly in respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention. Any action on your part in response to the information provided here is at your discretion. BCBSRI does not recommend or endorse specific tests, procedures, advice, or other information provided in this article.