What Are Common Symptoms of Heart Failure?

Reviewed by: HU Medical Review Board | Last reviewed: October 2019

It is important to recognize the common signs of heart failure. Symptoms associated with heart failure may not be the sign of an emergency, but understanding your condition and being able to report any changes is important to managing your heart failure.1

General heart failure symptoms

    • Dyspnea - shortness of breath with activity (exertion)
    • Fatigue and weakness - feeling tired and having difficulty keeping up with everyday activities
    • Persistent cough or wheezing – producing white or pink blood-tinged mucus
    • Edema - swelling in the abdomen or lower extremities including the legs, ankles, and feet due to a buildup of extra fluid
    • Orthopnea - shortness of breath when lying down
    • Paroxysmal Nocturnal Dyspnea (PND) - waking up at night gasping for breath
    • Palpitations - feeling a fluttering in your chest, or having a rapid or irregular heartbeat (arrhythmia)
    • Lack of appetite and nausea – feeling full or sick to your stomach
    • Confusion – having difficulty concentrating or disorientation1,2

Worsening heart failure symptoms

    • Rapid weight gain – 2 pounds in a day or 5 pounds in a week from fluid retention
    • Increased swelling in the feet or ankles
    • Shortness of breath not related to exercise or activity
    • Waking up short of breath
    • Increased mental confusion including memory loss3

When to call a doctor

Make an appointment to see the doctor if you are experiencing some of the signs or symptoms of heart failure.2,3 Managing an HF condition can involve medications and lifestyle choices including diet and exercise, but the symptoms of heart failure can fluctuate. See your doctor right away if you experience a sudden change and increase in the number of symptoms or a worsening of symptoms.2,3 There may be other underlying causes, medical conditions called comorbidities, that can be exacerbating your HF. Other illnesses like diabetes, lung disease, and chronic kidney disease can cause physiological complications that can be resolved by your health care team.

When to call 911

A heart attack occurs when there is a blockage in the arteries supplying the heart and it isn’t getting enough blood. The heart doesn’t get enough oxygen and the heart muscle becomes damaged. If you think you or someone you know is having a heart attack, call 911 or your local emergency service immediately to get to the hospital.2-4

Heart attack warning signs

There are classic warning signs associated with having a heart attack that you may be familiar with, including chest pain or discomfort and feeling an enormous sense of squeezing or tightness in the chest.2-3,5

But there are other symptoms that are just as important to know:

  • Pain in the upper body such as the neck, jaw, upper back, or arms
  • Sudden or severe difficulty breathing
  • Sweating
  • Nausea or vomiting
  • Fainting, dizziness, or lightheadedness

Recognizing the broader warning signs is important, especially because men and women often have different symptoms. Although chest pain is the most common symptom for everyone, women are more likely to experience symptoms such as shortness of breath, nausea or vomiting, upper back pain or pressure, or jaw pain.4 The symptoms can be very subtle.4

You don’t have to have heart failure to have a heart attack. Many people have undiagnosed heart failure and their first symptom is a heart attack. Others will have a HF diagnosis but never have a heart attack. It is important to know the symptoms and warning signs of heart failure and heart attacks; quick medical attention can save a life.

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