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Categories > Heart Health > Heart disease: Symptoms

The beat goes on

Many people hear the term heart failure and assume the heart has stopped beating. It hasn’t. If you have heart failure, your heart is still pumping—just not in the way it should.

Heart failure is a serious condition, often caused by coronary artery disease, high blood pressure or diabetes. It requires lifelong treatment, but its symptoms, such as shortness of breath and swelling of the legs and ankles, can be managed and you can live a full life. Here’s how:

  • Eat up. Focus on foods that are low in salt, unhealthy fats and cholesterol. The National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute’s Therapeutic Lifestyle Changes (TLC) diet and the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension (DASH) diet, which limit salt, sweets, fat and red meat in favor of fruits, vegetables, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, whole grains, fish, poultry, beans and nuts, are great options. Get more information at

    Make sure you’re getting enough potassium, too. Some heart medications can sap this mineral from your body, leading to life-threatening rapid heart rhythms, or arrhythmias. You’ll find potassium in bananas, strawberries and various greens, such as kale and Swiss chard. Ask your healthcare provider how much potassium you need. He or she may also advise you to limit your fluids to prevent fluid buildup.

  • Clean up your act. Don’t drink alcohol, smoke or use illegal drugs, which can further damage your heart.
  • Make friends with your pharmacist. Medication is key to controlling your condition. Your healthcare provider may prescribe medicines such as diuretics to curb fluid buildup and beta-blockers to lower your blood pressure. He or she may also recommend digoxin to help your heart beat stronger.
  • Get moving. Before you start exercising, ask your provider about the type and amount of exercise that’s safe for you, and whether cardiac rehabilitation (a program that gets you moving slowly, under the supervision of healthcare professionals) is a good idea for you.
  • Just say no to germs. Avoiding illnesses like flu and pneumonia is key, as they force your already ailing heart to work harder. Ask your provider about vaccines.
  • Don’t stand your doctor up. Keep all appointments, as your provider needs to see you to track your progress.
  • Watch for signs of heart failure. Call your provider if you experience any of the following symptoms, which could indicate that your condition isn’t being managed well:
    • sudden weight gain (two or more pounds in one day)
    • shortness of breath without physical exertion
    • swelling in your legs or ankles
    • swelling or pain in your stomach
    • sleep problems (waking up short of breath or having to use more pillows to breathe easier)
    • dry, hacking cough
    • increased fatigue