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Symptoms, Causes and Diagnosis

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Find answers to your questions about heart failure.

Learn More
about heart failure symptoms from WebMD.



Find definitions of technical terms in our glossary.

Understanding Heart Failure Symptoms

Many people mistakenly believe that heart failure is an abrupt stopping of the heart. In fact, heart failure usually develops over time. It is a condition that occurs when your heart is unable to contract or relax properly. As a result, your heart cannot pump enough blood to meet your body’s needs. 

Depending on the level of severity, heart failure may or may not be immediately life-threatening. However, it is typically a chronic (long-lasting) condition that worsens over time and needs treatment. There is no cure, but many people with heart failure who receive proper treatment go on to live long, full and enjoyable lives.

How the heart works

Your heart is made up of four chambers: the left and right atria (the top half of the heart) and the left and right ventricles (the bottom half). These chambers pump blood in an ordered sequence, starting with the right side of the heart.

Heart failure causes

As we get older, our hearts naturally lose some ability to pump blood. This is a normal part of the aging process and not necessarily a medical problem. Heart failure, however, is a condition caused by an underlying disease that weakens or damages areas of the heart. 

Conditions that may increase the risk of developing heart failure include:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • High blood pressure
  • Arrhythmias
  • Heart valve disease
  • Cardiomyopathy
  • Heart defects present since birth 
  • Diabetes
  • Heart muscle diseases
  • Infection of the heart and/or heart valves
  • Damage to the heart muscle from heart attack

How the heart and body change during heart failure

To make up for its decreased ability to pump blood, the heart and body may make changes to adapt:

  • The heart may become enlarged, stretching its chambers and growing more muscle.
  • The heart may simply beat faster.
  • The body may compensate for the loss of pumping force by narrowing blood vessels to keep blood pressure up.
  • The body may divert the flow of blood away from less important tissues and organs so that vital organs such as the heart and brain have an adequate supply.

These adjustments may help for a while, but eventually the heart’s inability to pump worsens and you may begin to notice symptoms.

Heart failure symptoms

If you have heart failure, you may notice certain symptoms that affect you on a daily basis. They include:

  • Fatigue
  • Shortness of breath
  • Muscle weakness or pain
  • Problems during exercise like lightheadedness, dizziness and nausea 

Other symptoms include:

  • Shortness of breath when not exercising
  • Swelling, especially the legs and ankles
  • Swelling or pain in the abdomen
  • Difficulty sleeping 
  • Frequent dry, hacking cough
  • Increased fatigue or dizzy spells
  • Loss of appetite
  • Sudden weight gain

Receiving a heart failure diagnosis

The earlier you receive a diagnosis, the more effectively you and your doctor can manage your heart failure so you can live a longer, more active life. Your doctor will order a variety of tests to make a heart failure diagnosis. He or she will determine the type of heart failure you have and how severe it is before recommending a treatment.