Heart Failure, General
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Heart Failure (Left Or Right Sided)

The heart is a large muscle that pumps blood throughout the body. Blood carries oxygen to all the organs, muscles, and skin of your body. After the body takes the oxygen out of the blood, the blood returns to the heart. The right side of the heart collects that blood and pumps it to the lungs to receive fresh oxygen. This oxygen-rich blood from the lungs then returns to the left side of the heart where it is pumped back out to the rest of the body, starting the process all over.

Heart Failure (HF) occurs when the heart muscle is weakened. This affects the pumping action of the heart.

When the right side of the heart is weakened, it can’t handle the blood it is receiving from the rest of the body. This blood returns to the heart through veins. When too much pressure builds up in the veins fluid leaks out into the tissues. Gravity then causes that fluid to spread to those parts of the body that are the lowest. Therefore, one of  the first symptoms of HF include swelling in the feet and ankles. If the condition worsens, the swelling can even go up past the knees.

When the left side of the heart is weakened, it can’t handle the blood it is receiving from the lungs. Pressure then builds up in the veins of the lungs, causing fluid to leak into the lung tissues. This may be referred to as congestive heart failure. This causes you to feel short of breath, weak, or dizzy. These symptoms are often worse with exertion, such as climbing stairs or walking up hills. Lying flat is uncomfortable and can make your breathing worse. This may make sleeping difficult and force you to use extra pillows to sleep well.

This condition may not only affect the right side of the heart or only the left side. While it may have started on one side, it often affects both sides.

Causes of heart failure

  • Coronary artery disease

  • Prior heart attack (also known as acute myocardial infarction, or AMI)

  • High blood pressure

  • Damaged heart valve

  • Diabetes

  • Obesity

  • Cigarette smoking

  • Alcohol abuse


Heart failure is a chronic condition. There is no cure. The purpose of medical treatment is to improve the pumping action of the heart, and remove excess water from the body. A number of medications can help achieve this goal, improve symptoms and prevent the heart from becoming weaker. Another major goal is to better treat the caues of heart failure, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and your lifestyle.

Home care

  • Check your weight every day. A sudden increase in weight gain could mean worsening heart failure.

    • Use the same scale every day

    • Weigh yourself at the same time every day

    • Make sure the scale is on the floor, not on a rug

    • Keep a record of your weight every day, so your doctor can see it. If you are not given a log sheet for this, keep a separate journal for this purpose. 

  • Reduce your salt (sodium) intake.

    • Avoid high-salt foods (olives, pickles, smoked meats, salted potato chips, etc.).

    • Do not add salt to your food at the table and use only small amounts of salt when cooking.

  • Follow your doctors recommendations about how much fluid intake is safe.

  • Stop smoking.

  • Reduce alcohol use.

  • Lose weight if you are overweight. The excess weight adds a lot of stress on the workload of the heart.

  • Stay active. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is safe for your heart.

  • Keep your feet elevated to reduce swelling. Ask your doctor about support hose as a preventive treatment for daytime leg swelling.

Besides taking your medicine as instructed, an important part of treatment includes lifestyle changes such as diet, physical activity, stopping smoking, and weight control.

Improve your diet. Often in the hospital, people are given a "heart healthy diet." This includes more fresh foods, lower fat, less processed foots, and lower salt.

Follow-up care

  • Follow up with your doctor as directed by our staff.

  • Make sure to keep any appointments that were made for you as this can help better control heart failure.

  • If an X-ray was done, you will be notified of any new findings that may affect your care.

Call 911

Call 911 if you:

  • Become severely short of breath

  • Feel lightheaded, or feel like you might pass out or faint

  • Have chest pain or discomfort that is different than usual, the medicines your doctor told you to use for this do not help, or the pain lasts longer than 10 to 15 minutes

  • Suddendly develop a rapid heart rate

When to seek medical care

Get prompt medical attention if you have any of the following signs of worsening heart failure:

  • Sudden weight gain (more than 3 pounds in 1 day, more than 5 pounds in 1 week, or whatever weight gain you were told to report by your doctor)

  • Trouble breathing not related to being active

  • New or increased swelling of your legs or ankles

  • Swelling or pain in your abdomen

  • Breathing trouble at night (waking up short of breath, needing more pillows to breathe)

  • Frequent coughing that doesn’t go away

  • Feeling much more tired than usual

Online Medical Reviewer: Pierce-Smith, Daphne, RN, MSN, CCRC
Online Medical Reviewer: Stempler, Dennis, MD
Date Last Reviewed: 8/8/2013
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