What is heart failure?

Heart failure means that your heart is not working correctly. The main job of your heart is to pump blood to your body. It is like a pump that pumps water out of a pool. If the pump is weak, not all of the water can be removed. Some of the water stays in the pool.

When your heart is weak, it can't pump the blood as well as it should. Parts of your body can hold extra fluid that isn't being moved very well by your heart.

Fluid build-up in your lungs can cause shortness of breath when you walk, go up stairs or lie down. Fluid build-up in your stomach can cause upset stomach after eating, bloating or swelling.

There are two types of heart failure:

  • your heart can't fill up with as much as it should
  • your heart can't squeeze out as much blood as it should.

In both cases, your heart isn't pumping enough oxygen-rich blood, and fluid is backing up in your lungs and stomach.

Causes of heart failure

There are a lot of causes of heart failure. Some of the common causes are:

  • coronary artery disease (Tobacco use is a risk for coronary artery disease.)
  • heart attack
  • heart value problems
  • high blood pressure
  • kidney failure
  • irregular heartbeat
  • viral infections (that attack the heart)
  • chemotherapy and radiation therapy (to treat cancer)
  • pregnancy-related (rare condition that can occur in the third trimester of pregnancy or the first few months after giving birth)
  • alcohol use (in large amounts)
  • street drug use (such as cocaine or heroin)
  • genetic (runs in families)
  • obesity (being overweight)
  • diabetes

Source: Allina Health's Patient Education Department, Heart Failure, fifth edition, 1-931876-31-2
First Published: 10/04/2002
Last Reviewed: 12/10/2015