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Heart Failure - Signs, Symptoms & Causes

Feeling tired, experiencing mysterious swelling, or a shortness of breath? The chances are it’s nothing to worry about, but it could also be a sign of something much worse.

Heart failure is a growing problem in the UK, partly due to lifestyle changes but also due to other issues such as the pandemic which has seen both delays in diagnosis, but also complications from heart disease.

As with any medical worries, it pays to act quickly, and treatment can make the world of difference to your recovery and quality of life. With this in mind, we explore the signs, symptoms and treatments for heart failure.

Heart failure – a growing problem

Over the past five years, the number of hospital admissions for heart failure increased by a third. The rise is three times faster than for all other hospital admissions. With heart failure patients staying in hospital for an average of ten days, that’s twice the number than for any other condition, the growing number of people living with heart disease is putting the health service under strain.

Several factors are contributing to this increase including an ageing population, growing levels of obesity and other lifestyle factors. The COVID-19 pandemic exacerbated a problem with even a mild case likely to significantly increase risks from the condition. To avoid serious issues, therefore, it pays to understand the symptoms and possible remedies.

Signs of heart failure

As with most medical conditions, the earlier you spot the signs of heart failure the better your chances will be. Simply put, heart failure is a condition in which the heart cannot pump enough blood to meet the needs of the body. As this starts to happen, certain symptoms will occur.

Common symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath: You may feel breathless during activity or at rest. It may feel difficult to breathe while lying on your back and wake up feeling tired or anxious. This is caused by blood backing up in the pulmonary veins because the heart can’t keep up with demand, causing fluid to leak into the lungs.
  • Swelling in certain areas of the body: If you experience swelling of the ankle, abdomen or other weight gain, it could be a sign of some fluid building up in the tissues.
  • Fatigue: Feeling tired for no reason, even during light activity, can be a sign of many different problems. With heart failure it’s caused by the heart struggling to deliver sufficient blood supply around the body.
  • Confusion or impaired thinking: With heart failure, the body is less able to process substances such as sodium. Changing levels of these substances can affect cognition leading to confusion.
  • Increasing heart rate: To make up for the loss of capacity, the heart tries to make up for the shortfall by pumping faster, leading to high blood pressure.
  • Lack of appetite: If the digestive system is receiving less blood, its ability to process food can be impaired. This can lead to a feeling of being full as well as causing nausea.
  • Persistent coughing: If blood backs up because the heart is struggling to meet demand, fluid can build up in the lungs leading to fits of coughing and wheezing.

Each of these symptoms may indicate other problems and, in isolation, will not necessarily be a cause for any major concern. However, if you have one or more of them for a prolonged period of time, it could be a sign that something is going badly wrong. Whether you have been previously diagnosed with heart problems or not, it’s a good idea to consult a medical professional.

Causes of heart failure

The causes of heart failure can vary depending on the individual. However, some of the more common causes include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure, and diabetes. Genetics can also play a role in heart disease. If you have a family history of the condition, you may be at increased risk, so it can be even more vital to ensure that you are living as healthy a lifestyle as possible.

You can help to protect your heart by making lifestyle changes such as eating a healthy diet, exercising regularly, managing stress, and if you smoke – choosing to quit.

How can I treat heart failure?

The idea of any problems with the heart will be extremely frightening. However, with prompt intervention and the right treatment, you may well be able to do something about it.

To diagnose heart failure, your doctor may look at your medical history taking into consideration any risk indicators such as high blood pressure or a history of coronary disease or diabetes. They will also use an examination to check for things such as signs of fluid build-up in the lungs.

Afterwards, doctors may also suggest other check-ups such as blood tests, chest X-rays or CT and MRI scans to check the condition of the heart and arteries. Simpler checks may include a stress test to measure the response of the heart to physical exercise. For example, you may be strapped to an ECG machine while running on a treadmill.

Depending on the results of these tests the doctor may recommend various forms of treatment starting with lifestyle changes such as a healthier diet and exercise. Symptoms should be closely monitored and if you notice any changes you should immediately notify a healthcare professional.

Some instances of heart failure such as a damaged valve can be corrected with surgery to address the underlying causes. Devices can be installed to help the heart such as pacemakers or implantable cardiac defibrillators. Heart bypass surgery can use blood vessels from another part of the body to divert around a blocked artery, while angioplasty uses a tiny balloon to stretch open a narrowed artery. In some extreme cases, doctors may even recommend a full heart transplant.

For ongoing treatment, doctors will recommend a range of medications including:

  • Beta-blockers: By slowing down the heart beta-blockers protect the heart from the effects of so-called fight-or-flight chemicals such as adrenalin.
  • Ivabradine: Beta blockers can have some side effects such as dizziness. In that case, ivabradine can do the same job and be a safer alternative to beta-blockers.
  • ACE inhibitors: Angiotensin converting enzyme inhibitors relax blood vessels, opening them up and making it easier to pump blood around the body.
  • Digoxin: Improves symptoms by strengthening the heart muscle contractions. This is normally only recommended in people who continue to have symptoms despite the use of beta-blockers.

In some cases, where heart failure has progressed to the most serious stages the only option can be palliative care to ease symptoms and ensure as good a quality of life for as long as possible.

Whatever course of treatment the doctor prescribes it’s important to stick to the plan and keep taking medication – even if symptoms start to improve. If you’re taking heart medication, having a device that provides medication reminders such as the SureSafe Guardian Plus can help to keep you on track. Additionally, this personal alarm gives you and your loved ones peace of mind that, should you get into difficulty, help is at the touch of a button. People with a heart condition are also at a higher risk of a fall, following a trip as a result of light-headedness, or worse, following a heart attack. SureSafe’s range of fall alarms for the elderly have sensors that call for help when a fall is detected, without needing to push the button.

Although heart failure is a chronic condition, with the right approach it is possible to alleviate symptoms and even increase the strength of the heart.

At SureSafe we provide a range of personal alarms that can give you and your loved ones complete peace of mind that, should you get into difficulties, that help is always available. Call SureSafe's friendly team of experts 0800 112 3201 to discover the best options for you.

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