a woman sits with a laptop trying to remember her first symptoms of heart failure. Thought bubbles show edema, fatigue, shortness of breath and coughing

Community Shares: The First Symptoms of Heart Failure You Remember

Like many conditions, heart failure can present over time. One symptom may show up, then a few more until it is all too much to ignore. When you look back, you probably remember the symptoms that were signs pointing to heart failure.

To shed light on the early symptoms of heart failure, we wanted to start a conversation about the topic. We reached out to community members on our Facebook page and asked: “Looking back, what was one of the first heart failure symptoms that you remember experiencing?”

More than 200 community members commented. Here is what was said.

Shortness of breath

When your heart is not working well, it does not pump enough blood through your body, and the result is that you feel short of breath. Heart failure also causes fluid to leak into the lungs. This shortness of breath can show up when walking or doing other exercises. It can also just feel like you cannot catch your breath, which some of you described as feeling like drowning.

“Shortness of breath.”

“Shortness of breath. It was so bad that I went to the ER and was diagnosed hours later.”

“The worst was feeling like I was drowning.”

Racing heart

When the heart is having trouble pumping blood, it may result in the organ working harder and faster – which many people can certainly feel.

“My heart would race. At first, I wrote it off as a family thing. Then later, when it would happen more often and skip a beat, I thought it was just stress.”

“Heart racing and palpitations.”

Extreme exhaustion

Exhaustion as a symptom can point to any number of diagnoses. If it was the only symptom, it would be hard for a doctor to diagnose heart failure. However, most community members who mentioned exhaustion also mentioned a second symptom as well, which can help a doctor make the diagnosis faster. Also, because exhaustion from heart failure is so extreme, it does help lead to a clear diagnosis. As far as exhaustion goes, it is one of the symptoms that does not always entirely go away after someone receives treatment, whether with medicine or surgery.

“Extreme exhaustion taking just a couple of steps. Felt like I ran a mile. I had no strength and shortness of breath.”

“Totally and utterly exhausted.”


Swelling, or edema, in the lower legs and feet, is one of the most recognizable early signs of heart failure. This happens because blood flow has slowed down and backs up in the veins of the legs.

“Feet swelling.”


“Edema in feet, legs, and abdomen.”

“Incredible leg swelling.”


Because heart failure causes fluid to build up in the lungs, this can cause someone to cough a lot. Someone might also suspect heart failure if the mucus that they cough up has a pink color to it, indicating blood is present.

“Still did not realize I started a horrible cough and nothing would come. When something did, it was so sticky. Then my abdomen got so tight.” 

“A non-stop cough or shortness of breath.”

“Tiredness and cough.”

Thank you to everyone in the community who shared their experiences. We are grateful for everyone’s willingness to be part of the conversation.

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