Symptoms of Congestive Heart Failure

Often, the signs of congestive heart failure do not surface for a long time and people are unaware of the disease. The first symptoms are often as innocuous as shortness of breath or a cough. This can later develop into a feeling of not being able to breathe properly. People with asthma, emphysema or chronic obstructive pulmonary disease may think that the symptoms are related to another condition. For those without breathing problems, symptoms may be mistaken for a cough, cold, bronchitis or flu. To compound the problem of diagnosis, these conditions may co-exist along with congestive heart failure.

Three of the main symptoms of congestive heart failure are:

  • Exercise Intolerance: This is an inability to tolerate even the mildest form of physical exertion. This happens because the body needs oxygen and nutrients during any form of physical activity. The decreased blood supply in cases of congestive heart failure means the heart is unable to supply the oxygen required for this activity. This results in a person being unable to walk at a normal pace without getting breathless and suffering from chronic fatigue. Ordinary activities which require some physical exertion may also be difficult to perform. The breathlessness that accompanies these activities usually passes after resting.
  • Breathlessness or Dyspnea: As the heart failure progresses, fluids back into the lungs. This prevents the blood from getting properly oxygenated, causing dyspnea. In severe cases a person may awaken at night with shortness of breath and may have to sit upright to get relief. This is known as paroxysmal nocturnal dyspnea. As the fluid continues to build up, a frothy pink fluid may be coughed up.
  • Swelling or edema may occur in the feet, ankles and legs often at the end of the day or after prolonged periods of sitting or standing. The swelling is more pronounced around the ankles or near the shins. Pressing down on the puffy areas may cause an indentation that can last for a few minutes. This is known as pitting edema.  In severe cases the swelling may also reach the hips, scrotum and abdomen.