Heart Failure Patient Information Fact Sheet

What is heart failure?
Heart failure is a term used to describe a number of conditions that affect the heart’s ability to pump blood to the lungs and the rest of the body. Although it sounds like a life-threatening illness, there are effective drug treatments that your doctor can prescribe to manage the condition. If you suffer from heart failure you may experience fatigue, swelling of the ankles and legs, and shortness of breath when lying down. Breathing may be easier when you are propped up on a bed.

What causes heart failure?
Causes can include high blood pressure, a previous heart attack, diseased heart muscle or faulty heart valves. Lung diseases such as chronic bronchitis may also contribute to heart failure. The heart is forced to work harder to pump blood around the body and eventually weakens. As a result, the lungs become fluid-filled, making breathing more difficult. Fluid retention (edema) in other parts of the body causes swelling, particularly in the ankles and legs.

Who is at risk for heart failure?
According to statistics published by the American Heart Association there are around 5.7 million people who suffer from heart failure in the U.S. The incidence of heart failure increases steeply with age and it is more common in men than in women. The number of people with heart failure is thought to be rising; this is partly because people are living longer nowadays, and because more people survive a heart attack.

How is heart failure treated?
Treatment depends partly on the cause of the heart failure. Various tests are used to make an accurate diagnosis. These include a chest x-ray, which will show whether the heart is enlarged and an electrocardiogram (ECG), which can detect any abnormal heart function. A special ultrasound device (echocardiograph) gives an image of the heart on a screen and shows damage to the structure of the heart. None of these tests cause any discomfort .

Drug treatments for heart failure include digoxin (Lanoxin), which strengthens the heart’s contractions, and diuretics (water tablets), which help the body to get rid of excess fluid and reduce swelling. There are many different diuretics available and some preparations contain a combination of two different types of diuretic.

A class of drugs called ACE inhibitors bring considerable improvement in many cases of heart failure. They improve the flow of blood by reducing constriction in the blood vessels and can stop the disease progressing. Examples of ACE inhibitors include captopril (Capoten),  enalapril (Vasotec), fosinopril, lisinopril (Prinivil, Zestril), perindopril (Aceon), quinapril (Accupril) and ramipril (Altace). Several combined preparations containing an ACE inhibitor and a diuretic are also available.