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Heart Failure

Understanding Congestive Heart Failure (CHF)

What is CHF?

CHF occurs when your heart is not able to pump enough blood to meet the needs of the rest of your body.

What are the symptoms?

The most common symptoms of CHF are related to excess fluid buildup or the inability of the heart to pump enough blood to the muscles or brain. Please see the list below and consult your doctor if you have any or worsening symptoms.


Shortness of breath and cough

This occurs when fluid collects in your lungs, making it difficult to breathe. Shortness of breath may be worse during certain activities, such as walking up stairs or when lying flat. Occasionally, CHF causes a persistent cough, which tends to be worse at night. Sitting upright or sleeping in a reclined position may help shortness of breath or cough.

Swelling of the feet, ankles and legs

Extra fluid may collect in your feet, ankles and legs, leading to swelling. Swelling may gradually extend up your legs to your waist as more fluid builds up. When CHF is the cause of the swelling, both legs are usually involved, but not always equally.

Weight gain

When your body retains extra fluid, your weight goes up. Sometimes this happens quite rapidly (up to two or three pounds in a day). This almost always means your body is holding on to too much salt, and therefore, too much water. Slow and progressive weight gain may be a sign that your CHF is getting out of control.

Tiredness or fatigue

When your heart is working harder to pump blood and oxygen to your brain and muscles, you may feel more tired than usual. You may notice that you do not have enough energy for your normal activities.

What causes CHF?

There are many causes for CHF, but in every case, one or more parts of the heart does not work well. The most common cause is a weakening of the heart muscle itself, called cardiomyopathy. This may occur after a heart attack, if you have high blood pressure for an extended amount of time or after an infection. Other causes may include:

  • Alcohol abuse or excessive drinking
  • An abnormally functioning heart valve
  • Irregular heart rate
  • Certain illnesses

How is CHF treated?

CHF cannot be cured, but it can be controlled. With proper treatment and lifestyle changes, you can slow the progression of CHF and improve your chances of survival. Medications are an important part of treatment. Research shows that heart failure medications can:

  • Help reduce your symptoms
  • Help you breathe easier
  • Help increase your energy
  • Help reduce swelling or fluid buildup

When to call for help.

If you have been diagnosed with CHF, call your doctor if you experience any of the following symptoms:

  • Your ankles and legs become more swollen
  • Your shoes and socks suddenly become tight
  • You have shortness of breath that does not go away with rest
  • You gain two to three pounds in one day
  • You gain four to five pounds in five days
  • You are dizzy or weak
  • Your heartbeat changes (feels like a butterfly in your chest)
  • You have chest pain
  • You have blurred vision or you pass out
  • You have a cough that does not go away

If you do not have a physician, call UT Health East Texas Physicians at 903-596-DOCS, or click here to schedule an appointment online. In the case of an emergency, call 911 immediately.

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