Symptoms of heart failure

Engine failure in a car results in instant stopping.

Heart failure fortunately does not mean instant stopping for the body.  This term is a bit of a misnomer as it does not mean the heart has come to a standstill, but it refers to a condition where the heart is not pumping efficiently enough to meet the body’s need for blood.

In a car the engine management system takes over when problems are detected.  The human body’s control system also takes control when the body detects insufficient blood supply.  It tries to compensate by raising stress hormones, causing the heart to beat faster and harder.  Blood vessels narrow in an effort to stabilise blood pressure and blood is diverted from less important tissues to keep blood flowing to the heart and brain. Sodium and fluid are retained to supplement the volume of blood in circulation.

These are short term fixes by the body’s “engine management system”, but over time the heart weakens further.  Tissues and organs don’t get enough blood/oxygen, and fluid builds up in the lungs and tissues.


  • Lack of oxygen can lead to feelings of fatigue and lightheadedness, even mental confusion.
  • Shortness of breath.
  • Increased heart rate.
  • Lack of appetite and nausea.
  • Chronic coughing or wheezing that produces white or pink blood tinged mucus.
  • The build-up of fluid in the body can lead to weight gain.
  • Heart failure usually effects only one side of the heart. When it occurs on the left side, blood backs up into the lungs and cause symptoms such as shortness of breath and coughing.  Heart failure on the right side causes blood to back up into the veins and build-up in the body tissues, which can result in swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or abdomen.
  • The early signs of heart failure are often attributed to other factors, such as being unfit, getting older or being overweight.

Early diagnosis of heart failure, and advances in treatment protocols, means that many people with heart failure can still lead a fulfilling life, so it’s best to see a doctor in the event of any of these symptoms appearing. Don’t wait for complete engine failure!



“What are the symptoms of heart failure?” Published online on 31 December 2016 in Healthbeat, by Harvard Medical School.

“Warning signs or heart failure.” Published online on 9 February 2017 by the American Heart Foundation.

“Heart failure.” Published online on 30 August 2016 by the Mayo Clinic.

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