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Nursing:
doi: 10.1097/01.NURSE.0000348655.04371.78
Patient Education Guide

Understanding heart failure

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Excerpted and updated from Patient-Education Series: Heart Failure, McEnroe Ayers DM. Nursing. 2004;34(11):46–47.

This patient-education guide has been adapted for the 5th-grade reading level using the Flesch-Kincaid and SMOG formulas. It may be photocopied for clinical use or adapted to meet your facility's requirements. Special thanks to Tracy Kane, MEd, community health educator, Capital Health System, Trenton, N.J.

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What is heart failure?

Heart failure means that your heart can't fill with blood or pump blood to the rest of your body as well as it should. The heart muscles have to work harder to do their job.

When your heart can't pump as it should, blood and fluids back up in your body, which may cause swelling in your belly, legs, hands, and feet and make you gain weight. You may feel tired, dizzy, or short of breath, especially at night or when you lie down. Too much fluid in your lungs may make you cough.

Heart failure can be caused by a narrowing of arteries that carry blood to the heart, high blood pressure, or damage to the heart muscle from a heart attack. Diseases of the heart muscle or heart valves also can cause heart failure. Chronic lung disease may put you at higher risk for heart failure.

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How will my healthcare provider know I have heart failure?

Your healthcare provider will take your medical history, perform a physical exam, and order tests to see how well your heart works. These tests usually include blood tests and a painless echocardiogram to look at the heart's valves and pumping chambers. A stress test can help him determine what's causing your heart failure. You don't need to be hospitalized for these tests.

Your healthcare provider may order cardiac catheterization to look at the blood flow and pressures in your heart and to take a closer look at the valves and pumping action of your heart. Performed in the hospital, this test involves putting dye in your blood and taking X-ray pictures of your heart as the dye travels through it.

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How will my healthcare provider treat my heart failure?

Your healthcare provider will advise you to make lifestyle changes, such as getting more exercise and changing your eating habits. You may also need to take medicine. (See How does this medicine help me?)

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Your healthcare provider may suggest a daily exercise plan that won't make you too tired or strain your heart. Even getting a little exercise will help you feel better.

Follow the diet your healthcare provider recommends. Avoid fats such as shortening, butter, and margarine; olive and vegetable oil are okay in small amounts. Also avoid fried foods; eat baked or broiled foods instead. Stay away from foods with more than 400 mg of salt (sodium) per serving. Read labels so you don't eat more than 2 grams (less than a teaspoon) of salt per day.

Limit alcohol consumption to no more than one serving daily if you have left ventricular dysfunction.

If you have high blood pressure or diabetes, follow your healthcare provider's plan to keep your blood pressure and blood sugar under control.

If you're overweight, lose weight. Being too heavy causes high blood pressure and makes your heart work harder. If you smoke, ask your healthcare provider about ways to help you quit.

Join a heart failure support group to help you deal with these lifestyle changes. Make sure family or caregivers read this guide and ask them to support you during treatment.

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When should I call my healthcare provider?

Notify your healthcare provider immediately if:

* you feel bloated or dizzy

* your heart beats faster than normal or you have chest discomfort

* you feel more tired or short of breath than usual

* you gain 2 or more pounds (1 kg) within a few days, which may indicate a fluid buildup. Weigh yourself each day at the same time after you go to the bathroom and before you get dressed and eat breakfast. Record the results.

© 2009 Lippincott Williams & Wilkins, Inc.

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