Your Guide to Living With Congestive Heart Failure

Medically Reviewed by Carolin Schneider, MD

Photo Courtesy: Ariel Skelley/DigitalVision/Getty Images

Congestive heart failure (CHF) is a condition that develops when your heart loses its ability to supply your body with blood the way it normally should. It can lead to a lack of oxygen in your body, which can affect your other organs and bodily systems. Almost 5 million people in the United States live with CHF, with doctors diagnosing more than a half a million new cases every year. This health condition affects people of all ages and backgrounds.

There are different stages and types of heart failure that can occur based on the different ways CHF can affect your heart and body. Various factors can influence whether or not you develop CHF — and how extensive it might become if you’re diagnosed. Fortunately, there’s a variety of different ways to address the symptoms of CHF. If you or a loved one are facing a CHF diagnosis, it’s important to understand what this condition involves — and what to expect from treatment — to manage symptoms and live comfortably.

Stages of Heart Failure

There are different stages of the CHF, and they’re classified according to how well your heart pumps and which symptoms are present. The New York Heart Association Functional Classification system diagnoses people based on the symptoms they experience during physical activities:

  • Class I: There are usually no limitations to physical activities. You might only have a few symptoms, such as mild fatigue.
  • Class II: Symptoms, such as shortness of breath, occur with physical exertion.
  • Class III: You may have significant physical limitations due to symptoms, such as fatigue and shortness of breath.  
  • Class IV: This is severe heart failure. At this stage, it’s common to experience symptoms even while you’re at rest. The symptoms make carrying out normal physical activities very difficult.

There are different types of heart failure, too. They’re classified based on the part of your heart that’s affected. CHF tends to start on the left side of your heart in the left ventricle. These are some of the types of heart failure:

  • Left-sided: Blood doesn’t move from your lungs into your heart correctly.
  • Right-sided: Blood doesn’t move from your body into your heart correctly.
  • Systolic: The left ventricle can’t contract efficiently.
  • Diastolic: The left ventricle can’t relax efficiently.

Treatments for Congestive Heart Failure 

Your doctor will typically choose your treatment for CHF based on how severe your symptoms are and the class of the disease. Medical therapy aims to improve symptoms, stop or slow the decline of your heart’s pumping ability, and reduce the chances of death. In most cases, treatment also involves lifestyle changes, such as reducing your salt intake, quitting smoking, and weight reduction if necessary.

Some medications can help by reducing fluid retention, opening up blood vessels or slowing down your heart rate. A combination of different medications may be necessary to relieve your symptoms of heart failure.

In later stages of CHF, you may need surgery to correct or treat the underlying heart conditions. This includes procedures called coronary bypass surgery and heart valve replacement. You may also need to have a device called a pacemaker implanted into your body. A pacemaker helps regulate your heartbeat. A heart transplant may be an option if you have very severe CHF.

Your Next Steps for Living With Congestive Heart Failure

There are many steps you can take to reduce symptoms and manage CHF. Taking your medication as prescribed and having a medication regimen may prevent symptoms from developing or prevent your heart failure from progressing.

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Talk to your healthcare provider about your symptoms and any side effects you experience after taking medication. Having a chronic disease can lead to depression and other mental health issues. It’s essential to talk to your healthcare provider about ways to manage stress and maintain a positive outlook after your diagnosis.

If you’re caring for someone with CHF, there are several ways you can help. Going to their appointments and taking notes on what your loved one’s healthcare provider says can help them keep track of complex information. If you’re cooking for them, be aware of the sodium content in food you make. Salt restriction is often necessary to help limit fluid retention in people with CHF. Encourage healthy lifestyle habits, such as a proper diet and exercise, and monitor your loved one for any worsening symptoms.

Resource Links

Classes of Heart Failure,” American Heart Association

Heart Failure Symptoms and Causes,” Mayo Clinic

Heart Failure,” National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute

Living With Heart Failure,” National Health Service

Heart Failure Statistics,” Emory Healthcare