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understanding and living with heart failure

Heart failure occurs when the heart fails to pump enough blood around the body, usually because the heart muscle has became weak, stiff or damaged.

It doesn’t mean your heart is going to stop. The heart just needs help to get the blood around your body. This is where medicines and lifestyle changes can help.

Learn what happens when the heart fails and how it affects the body

Heart failure is different to a heart attack. A heart attack involves a lack of blood to the heart muscle, usually caused by a clot to the arteries that supply it.

There is often a reason why your heart isn’t pumping correctly. Most of the time this is due to the heart muscle being damaged because it is getting a poor blood supply. This can happen when you’ve had a heart attack or when you've had high blood pressure which has affected the heart.

Other causes of heart failure include viruses, an abnormal heart rhythm, heart valve damage, excessive alcohol consumption, drug abuse, chemotherapy medication or genetic factors. Occasionally the cause is unknown.

Stay active
– though heart failure may limit the amount of energy you have, it’s important to plan some light physical activity to exercise your heart a little.

Diet
– you may find that eating smaller meals more frequently helps, as digesting small amounts of food may put less strain on the body, including the heart.

Salt
– avoid table salt and foods with a high salt content; this is because salt can affect how your body retains fluid, which can also put a strain on the heart.

Smoking
– if you have been diagnosed with heart failure, don’t smoke.

Alcohol
– try to keep within the recommended daily and weekly alcohol intake limits.

You should always seek the advice of a doctor or nurse if you feel unwell, but if you notice any of the following contact a healthcare professional immediately:

Sudden weight increase
– if you gain about 4–5 pounds (about 1.8–2.3 kilogrammes) in the space of 2–3 days.

Swelling
– if swelling in your legs, abdomen or feet becomes significantly worse.

Breathing
– if your breathing or coughing becomes significantly worse.

Fatigue
– if your fatigue worsens and begins to affect your ability to perform day-to-day activities.

Dizziness/light headedness
– if you find turning around or standing up causes you to stumble or fall.

The medicine(s) your doctor chooses to prescribe will depend on the severity of your condition, among other factors. To manage your symptoms, it’s important you take your medication(s) exactly as prescribed. 

Here are some of the medicines you may need to take:

Beta blockers 
– with names often ending in ‘-olol’, these medicines make your heart beat slower and ease the workload of the heart, relaxing blood vessels around the body.

ACE (angiotensin-converting enzyme) inhibitors 
– with names often ending in ‘-pril’, these medicines ease the workload of the heart by relaxing the blood vessels around the body, which reduces the strain on the heart.

ARBs (angiotensin receptor blockers) 
– with names often ending in ‘-sartan’, these medicines work in a similar way to ACE inhibitors and are usually given to patients who cannot tolerate ACE inhibitors.

ARN (angiotensin receptor–neprilysin) inhibitors 
– these are a new type of treatment which increases the body’s natural defences against heart failure whilst inhibiting the body’s natural system that has a harmful effect on the heart.

Diuretics 
– otherwise known as ‘water pills‘ (e.g. furosemide, bumetanide, spironolactone and eplerenone), these medicines help your body to get rid of extra fluid, so there is less fluid for your heart to pump.

MRAs (mineralocorticoid receptor antagonists)
–  with names often ending in ‘-one’, these medicines work in a similar way to diuretics in that they prevent the build-up of fluids.

Sinus node inhibitor 
–  ivabradine, currently the only treatment of this type, reduces the frequency of impulses from the sinus node – a place in the heart that controls the heart rate.

For more information on heart failure please visit the British Heart Foundation website.

Reporting of side effects

If you get any side effects, talk to your doctor or nurse. This includes any possible side effects not listed in the package leaflet. You can also report side effects directly via the Yellow Card Scheme at www.mhra.gov.uk/yellowcard. By reporting side effects you can help provide more information on the safety of this medicine.

Date of preparation: July 2016 ENT16-C022h(1)