Heart Failure

Make an Appointment

Heart failure occurs when your heart can't pump enough blood through the body. It's not a sudden or complete stop of heart activity.

Two kinds of heart failure exist:

  • Systolic, when your heart muscle is too weak
  • Diastolic, when your heart stiffens and can't fill with enough blood

As we age, nearly everyone’s heart loses some pumping capacity. Heart failure affects about 10% of people over age 80. 

Heart Failure Treatment at UVA

James Bergin, MD discusses heart failure and the treatment options available at UVA. View heart failure transcript.

Do You Have Heart Failure?

Viral or bacterial infections, birth defects, alcohol: These can all lead to heart failure.

The leading causes of heart failure are:

  • Coronary artery disease
  • Heart attack

Other less common causes include:

  • Cardiomyopathy (weakened, damaged heart muscle from age or congenital defects)
  • Certain medications
  • Abnormal heartbeats (arrhythmias)
  • Hyperthyroidism (overactive thyroid)
  • Amyloidosis (where an abnormal protein builds up in your body)
  • Kidney failure and/or liver failure
  • Thiamine (vitamin B1) deficiency

Symptoms of Heart Failure

Heart failure usually occurs gradually, but sudden episodes of 'congestion' may occur.

Symptoms of heart failure include:

  • Shortness of breath with activity or when lying flat
  • Swelling in the feet, legs or abdomen
  • Sudden awakening at night with a feeling that you can’t catch your breath
  • Fatigue, inability to do your daily activities
  • Palpitations
  • Dry, hacking cough
  • Loss of appetite
  • Nausea or vomiting

Symptoms of Worsening Heart Failure

Talk to your doctor if your heart failure worsens to the point where you experience any of these symptoms:

  • Inability to do the activities you were able to do a few days ago
  • Worsening shortness of breath at rest or with activity
  • Persistent cough
  • Swelling of your feet, legs, abdomen or hands   
  • Weight gain of three pounds in one day or five pounds in one week   
  • Sudden wakening in the middle of the night feeling like you can’t catch your breath   
  • Sensation that your heart is racing, or going very slowly, that lasts for several minutes

Content was created using EBSCO’s Health Library. Edits to original content made by Rector and Visitors of the University of Virginia. This information is not a substitute for professional medical advice.