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Symptoms of heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure may develop slowly (over days or weeks) or quickly. If you do not get help as soon as you have symptoms, you may need to spend time in the hospital to get the symptoms under control. Common symptoms of heart failure are:


To check for swelling in your ankle or foot, press the area with your finger. If you leave an indented fingerprint, it is a sign of edema. Call your health care team.

  • difficulty breathing. This is caused by congestion (fluid build-up) in your lungs. You may feel like you can't get enough air. You are often short of breath or out of breath when you are active.
  • waking up breathless at night with or without a dry, hacking cough that may get worse when you lie down. This is caused by the congestion in your lungs. You may need extra pillows to breathe easily when lying flat.
  • swelling in your feet, ankles, legs, hands, and/or lower back (edema). This is caused by extra fluid in your tissues. Swelling can be worse at the end of the day or if you have been standing or sitting for a long time.
  • swelling in your abdomen (ascities). This is due to fluid build-up in the tissue of your abdomen. Swelling (or bloating) in your abdomen may lead to nausea, pain, loss of appetite and shortness of breath.
  • Important

    Call your doctor if you gain 3 pounds in one day or 5 or more pounds in one week.

  • weight gain, even with a loss of appetite. This is caused by the build-up of fluid in your body. Retaining fluid can make your breathing more difficult or increase swelling. It is important that you weigh yourself every day and write it down so you can catch this problem early.

    Weigh yourself first thing in the morning, after going to the bathroom but before eating or drinking anything. Use the same scale and wear the same amount of clothing every day.

  • extreme fatigue. This is caused by the lack of oxygen-rich blood to your muscles. As a result, your heart is overworked and you feel tired.
  • dizziness, lightheadedness and lack of concentration. This is caused by your brain not getting enough blood. It is important to tell your health care provider if you are dizzy, lightheaded or if you cannot concentrate. These may be signs of low blood pressure, an irregular heartbeat or side effects of medicine. Be sure to get up slowly out of a bed or chair.
  • palpitations. This is the sensation caused by irregular heartbeats which may be dangerous.

Heart failure symptoms can be managed. The earlier you recognize your symptoms and report them to your health care team, the less time you may need to spend in the hospital. This means your life will be more enjoyable.

Remember, if you have any recurring symptoms, call your health care provider right away. You may be able to keep yourself out of the hospital.



Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Helping Your Heart, fourth edition, cvs-ahc-90648

First published: 10/04/2002
Last updated: 06/01/2007

Reviewed by: Allina Health's Patient Education Department experts