drawing of a woman with her hand at her throat

Problems breathing and waking up breathless at night.


drawing of legs and feet

Swelling in your feet, ankles, legs, hands, lower back, abdomen.


drawing of foot stepping on scale

Weight gain.


drawing of woman with head on her hand showing fatigue

Feeling very tired, dizzy or lightheaded.

Symptoms of heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure may develop slowly over days or weeks. They may also develop quickly. Get help as soon as you have symptoms.

If you do not, you may need to stay in the hospital to get the symptoms under control.

Common symptoms are:

  • difficulty breathing. This is caused by 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 fluid build-up in your lungs. You may need extra pillows so you can breathe easier when you lie down.
  • swelling in your feet, ankles, legs, hands, lower back or all (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.
    Check for swelling by pressing on your ankle or foot with your finger. If you leave an indented fingerprint, it is a sign of edema. Call your health care team.
  • swelling in your abdomen (ascites). This is caused by 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.
  • 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.
  • extreme fatigue (tiredness). 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 team 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. It may be dangerous.

You can manage heart failure symptoms.

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

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

Related resources

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