Heart failure usually gets worse over time. But there are many things you can do to feel better, stay healthy longer, and avoid the hospital.
Self-care means managing your health by doing certain things every day, like weighing yourself. It's about knowing which symptoms to watch for so you can avoid getting worse. When you practice good self-care, you know when it's time to call your doctor and when your heart failure has turned into an emergency. The lists below can help.
Top five self-care tips for every day
Take your medicines as prescribed. This gives them the best chance of helping you.
Watch for signs that you're getting worse. Weighing yourself every day is one of the best ways to do this. Weight gain may be a sign that your body is holding on to too much fluid. Weigh yourself at the same time each day, using the same scale, on a hard, flat surface. The best time is in the morning after you go to the bathroom and before you eat or drink anything.
Find out what your triggers are, and learn to avoid them. Triggers are things that make your heart failure worse, often suddenly. A trigger may be eating too much salt, missing a dose of your medicine, or exercising too hard.
Limit salt (sodium). This helps keep fluid from building up and makes it easier for your heart to pump.
Your doctor may want you to eat less than 2,000 mg of salt each day. That's less than 1 teaspoon. You can stay under this number by limiting the salt you eat at home and by watching for "hidden" sodium when you eat out or shop for food.
Try to exercise throughout the week. Exercise makes your heart stronger and can help you avoid symptoms.
Walking is a great way to get exercise. If your doctor says it's safe, start out with some short walks, and then slowly build up to longer ones.
When to act
Try to become familiar with signs that mean your heart failure is getting worse. If you need help, talk with your doctor about making a personal plan.
Here are some things to watch for as you practice your daily self-care. Call your doctor if:
You gain 3 pounds or more over 2 to 3 days. (Or your doctor may tell you how much weight to watch for.)
You have new or worse swelling in your feet, ankles, or legs.
Your breathing gets worse. Activities that did not make you short of breath before are hard for you now.
Your breathing when you lie down is worse than usual, or you wake up at night needing to catch your breath.
Be sure to make and go to all of your follow-up appointments. And it's always a good idea to call your doctor anytime you have a sudden change in symptoms.
When it's an emergency
Sometimes the symptoms get worse very quickly. This is called sudden heart failure. It causes fluid to build up in your lungs.
Sudden heart failure is an emergency. If you have any of these symptoms, you need care right away. Call 911 if:
You have severe shortness of breath.
You have an irregular or fast heartbeat.
You cough up foamy, pink mucus.
Other tips to help you stay healthy
There are other things you can do to take care of your body and your heart. These things will help you feel better. And they will also reduce your risk of heart attack and stroke.
Try to stay at a healthy weight. Eat a healthy diet with lots of fresh fruit, vegetables, and whole grains.
If you smoke, quit.
Limit the amount of alcohol you drink.
Keep high blood pressure and diabetes under control. If you need help, talk with your doctor.
Also let your doctor know if:
You're having trouble sleeping. Sleep is important to your well-being. It also helps your heart work the way it's supposed to. Your doctor can help you decide if you need treatment for sleep problems.
You're feeling sad and hopeless much of the time or if you are worried and anxious. Heart failure can be hard on your emotions. Treatment with counseling and medicine can help. And when you feel better, you're more likely to take care of yourself.
Other Works Consulted
Riegel B, et al. (2009). State of the science. Promoting self-care in patients with heart failure. A scientific statement from the American Heart Association. Circulation, 120(12): 1141–1163.
Primary Medical Reviewer
Rakesh K. Pai, MD, FACC - Cardiology, Electrophysiology
Specialist Medical Reviewer
Stephen Fort, MD, MRCP, FRCPC - Interventional Cardiology
How this information was developed to help you make better health decisions.