Here’s What It Really Means to Have Congestive Heart Failure

Even though congestive heart failure is a commonly used term, the details can get a bit confusing when you really dig into what it means. That’s because “congestive heart failure” isn’t a separate condition from “heart failure,” Dana Weisshaar, M.D., a cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, California, ​​tells SELF. Rather, the term is used to describe a type of heart failure that results in fluid retention, or congestion, throughout the body. Oftentimes, heart failure causes fluid build-up, which is responsible for many of its hallmark symptoms. And this can have serious consequences—90% of people who are hospitalized due to heart failure are admitted because of the symptoms resulting from congestion, research shows1.

However, even though congestive heart failure is seen frequently, medical professionals do not use the term synonymously with any type of heart failure, Dipti Itchhaporia, M.D., program director of heart failure disease management at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian and president of the American College of Cardiology, tells SELF. In fact, most medical experts have moved away from using this differentiator at all. “It’s a little bit of an archaic term now. We just tend to use heart failure as the term.”

So, why is it important to understand these nuances of heart failure, anyway? For one, the condition is common. About 6.2 million adults in the U.S. have heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

Still a bit iffy on what congestive heart failure means for your health? Ahead, SELF asked cardiologists to break down what to know about a diagnosis, from symptoms to congestive heart failure treatment.

What is congestive heart failure, and how is it different from other types of heart failure?

First, it’s helpful to understand what’s going on in the body when a person develops heart failure in general. Despite what the name implies, heart failure means that your heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to keep your body running as it should—not that the organ stopped working, according to the CDC. If your heart isn’t functioning properly, everyday tasks like walking up a few stairs can become difficult, especially if you feel short of breath.

When your heart struggles like this, it can affect your other organs too. “Many people with heart failure cannot eliminate fluids normally and hold onto volume rather than urinate out extra fluids,” Jennifer Haythe, M.D., associate professor of medicine and co-director of Columbia Women’s Heart Center, tells SELF. In this case, your kidneys don’t receive enough blood to filter extra fluid in your body into your urine, resulting in the “congestion” that characterizes congestive heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. This can happen suddenly (acute heart failure) or over time (chronic heart failure).

It’s important to note that not everyone with heart failure will develop fluid overload. “I prefer to make the distinction that not all heart failure is congestive,” Dr. Weisshaar says.

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What are common congestive heart failure symptoms?

Congestive heart failure symptoms can overlap with those of other types of heart failure—but you might also have some specific signs that there’s extra fluid in your body.

According to the Mayo Clinic and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), some common heart failure symptoms include:

  • Feeling very fatigued and weak when doing everyday activities.
  • A rapid or irregular heart rate, even when you’re relaxing.
  • Nausea, to the point where you can lose your appetite.
  • Chest pain, or feeling tightness and heaviness in your chest.
  • Bluish lips or fingers, which happens when your blood is extremely low in oxygen.


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