Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure: A Caregiver’s Guide

QMedic Team

Caregiver walking with CHF PatientCongestive heart failure (CHF) affects millions of people and is the leading cause of hospitalization worldwide. It doesn’t mean that the heart has stopped functioning. Rather, it means that the pumping power of the heart has grown weaker.

As the heart becomes weaker, the patient will experience symptoms of congestive heart failure that include fluid buildup around the heart.

CHF is a chronic condition that progresses over time. It affects the heart muscles’ pumping power. Fluids can amass around the organ and cause it to function improperly. A person suffers from CHF when the ventricles are unable to pump sufficient amounts of blood to the body. As a result, blood and other body fluids accumulate in the liver, lower body, abdomen and lungs. That’s why patients suffering from congestive heart failure experience swelling in the legs, also known as edema.

CHF is a life-threatening condition but depending on disease severity and progression when the condition is diagnosed, CHF can be treated and some of the damage to the heart reversed. If you suspect the person you are caring for has congestive heart failure, contact her doctor right away.

What’s the Difference between Coronary Artery Disease and Congestive Heart Failure? 

Patients with coronary artery disease (CAD) suffer from blockage of the arteries that supply the heart with blood, oxygen and nutrients. Cholesterol plaques cause the complete or partial blockage of the arteries. On the other hand, congestive heart failure is the inability of the heart to pump blood, which causes it to back up in the tissues and the lungs. CAD is the number one cause of CHF.

How to Diagnose Congestive Heart Failure

To diagnose CHF, doctors need to run several tests that include electrocardiogram, chest X-ray, blood tests, and ultrasound. ECG will assess the heart rhythm and heart rate. It can also determine the blood flow into the heart and the size of the ventricles.

An x-ray is taken to look at the size of the heart, as well as the absence or presence of fluids in the lungs. The blood tests needed to diagnose CHF include electrolytes, blood urea nitrogen (BUN), creatinine, glucose and complete blood count.

An ultrasound of the heart assesses the function and anatomy of the heart. Doctors also use it to analyze the heart muscle and valves. During the test, the doctor can also check the blood flow inside the heart by watching the contraction of the chambers.

What Is the Role of a Cardiologist in Treating CHF?

CHF diagnostic tools used by patients and cardiologistsA cardiologist specializes in diseases that affect the heart and the blood vessels. The doctor manages and treats different cardiovascular diseases that include coronary artery disease, high blood pressure and congestive heart failure. If you experience shortness of breath or wwother symptoms of congestive heart failure, consult a cardiologist right away. 

As the CHF progresses, the cardiologist plays a major role in treating the condition. It is important that the patient ask questions about the condition. Make sure that the cardiologist explains whether the heart failure is mild, moderate, or severe.

The cardiologist will also confirm the diagnosis of the patient’s primary doctor, as well as the treatment plan. If the condition is more severe, the patient needs to see a cardiologist on a regular basis to ensure she receives appropriate care.

When Is the Heart Failure Mild, Moderate, or Severe? 

You need to know the classification system based on the symptoms of congestive heart failure to determine whether the CHF is mild, moderate, or severe. Class I and Class II are considered mild. Class I symptoms include no limitation to physical activities. Doing ordinary activities doesn’t cause shortness of breath and undue fatigue. Class II symptoms make the patient suffer from slight limited physical activity. For Class II patients, owrdinary activities cause shortness of breath, palpitation, and fatigue.

Class III is moderate. There’s a more pronounced limitation of physical activity of the patient. While the patient is still comfortable while resting, one is likely to suffer from fatigue, shortness of breath, and palpitation when doing ordinary activities.

Class IV is severe CHF. The patient can’t do any physical activities without feeling discomfort. The patient also suffers from symptoms of congestive heart failure at rest.

How Does CHF Progress?

CHF is a progressive disease that has periods of stability with episodes of clinical exacerbation. However, the progress of the disease varies from one person to another. Several factors affect the long-term prognosis for a patient. They include nature of the heart disease, severity of the accompanying conditions, response to medications, and the degree of impairment.

The outlook for any given CHF patient is more favorable today than it was a decade ago. In some cases, there’s a significant improvement to their condition after treatment. Some patients report a return to normal heart function. Patients with severe CHF need a biventricular pacemaker inserted into their heart to reduce symptoms.

How to Prevent Congestive Heart Failure

It is important to underscore that congestive heart failure is the result of another illness. Controlling the risk factors of the underlying disease can help prevent CHF. These include maintaining a healthy level of cholesterol and blood pressure. The person must also quit smoking. Diabetes and high blood pressure are two of the main contributors of congestive heart failure. Drug and alcohol abuse can also contribute to CHF.

Another form of CHF is diastolic dysfunction. It occurs when the heart muscle becomes stiff due to aging or hypertension. As a result, the patient suffers from shortness of breath. The good news is that the long-term prognosis for this condition is good.

These are the things to know about CHF. If you observe an aging or disabled loved one showing symptoms of congestive heart failure, contact her doctor right away, a medical alert system can also help with this. There are many resources available for patients who want to cope with the challenges that congestive heart failure brings. These resources include cardiac rehab programs, local support groups, and monitoring of fluid intake and weight.

Below is great visual explanation of congestive heart failure provided by Dr. Ali Feili, MD. If you have a loved one suffering from CHF, we hope these resources help you through the journey.  

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