Carrie Skogsberg: What are the signs of congestive heart failure?

Carrie Skogsberg

The American Heart Association joins the world in mourning the loss of film legend Elizabeth Taylor, who died from congestive heart failure on Wednesday, March 23, at age 79.

More than 5 million Americans are living with heart failure today, and it was a contributing cause of 282,754 deaths in the U.S. in 2006, which is the latest statistic available. Learn the signs, causes and symptoms of congestive heart failure so you can recognize it in yourself or others.

Heart Failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart cannot pump enough blood and oxygen to support other organs. Heart failure is a serious condition, but it does not mean that the heart has stopped beating.  Heart failure is called congestive heart failure when fluid accumulates in various parts of the body.

What can happen?

  • Heart does not pump enough blood.
  • Blood backs up in veins.
  • Fluid builds up, causing swelling in feet, ankles and legs. This is called "edema."
  • Body holds too much fluid.
  • Fluid builds up in lungs, called "pulmonary congestion."
  • Body does not get enough blood, food and oxygen.

What are the signs?

  • Shortness of breath, especially when lying down.
  • Tired, run-down feeling.
  • Coughing or wheezing, especially when you exercise or lie down.
  • Swelling in feet, ankles and legs.
  • Weight gain from fluid buildup.
  • Confusion or can't think clearly.

What are the causes?

  • Clogged arteries don't let enough blood flow to the heart.
  • Past heart attack has done some damage to the heart muscle.
  • Heart defects present since birth.
  • High blood pressure.
  • Heart valve disease.
  • Diseases of the heart muscle.
  • Infection of the heart and/or heart valves.
  • Abnormal heart rhythm (arrhythmias).

How is it treated?

  • Your doctor may give you medicine to strengthen your heart and water pills to help your body get rid of excess fluids.
  • Your doctor will recommend a low-sodium (salt) diet.
  • You may be provided oxygen for use at home.
  • Your doctor may recommend certain lifestyle changes.
  • Surgery or cardiac devices may be needed, in some cases.

Carrie Skogsberg is a communications director for the American Heart Association.