Heart failure - the facts

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Heart failure is a very serious condition. Unfortunately, there’s no cure, but your doctor or health practitioner can help you manage the problems it causes and improve your quality of life. 

Heart failure happens when your heart muscle gets damaged, then becomes weak and doesn’t pump properly. Once your heart is damaged, it can’t heal.

The damage can be caused by a heart attack, or long-term health problems like high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease. 

It can also be caused by cardiomyopathy, a disease of the heart muscle. Cardiomyopathy affects any age group and is a serious lifelong condition. Cardiomyopathy means your heart is unable to pump an adequate supply of blood around the body.

Heart failure can make everyday activities exhausting, but by following the advice of your doctor or health practitioner you can improve the symptoms of your heart failure.

Finding out that you or someone you love has heart failure can be devastating. But you’re not alone. Around 100,000 Australians are living with heart failure. 


Heart failure causes extra fluid to build up in your body. You may feel very weak and tired.

Other common symptoms include:

  • being breathless
  • swollen ankles, legs or stomach
  • weight gain
  • losing your appetite
  • dizziness
  • coughing.

If you have heart failure and have new symptoms or your symptoms get worse, make sure you tell your doctor or health practitioner immediately. 


Your doctor may order some of these tests to diagnose heart failure:

  • echocardiogram
  • electrocardiogram (ECG)
  • coronary angiogram
  • chest X-ray.

Read more about medical tests 


Your doctor will talk to you about your medical history and find out the cause of your heart failure. This will help them decide the best treatments.


Your doctor may prescribe medicines to help control blood pressure or strengthen the pumping action of your heart. If you have angina, you may need medicine to treat it. Read more about medicines 

Procedures and devices

Your doctor may recommend a medical device to help your heart work better, like a pacemaker or implantable cardiac defibrillator (ICD). In specialised cases of heart failure, you may need a heart transplant or other surgery. Read more about heart procedures and devices 

Monitoring your fluid and symptoms 

Tell your doctor or health practitioner if you:

  • are more breathless than usual
  • put on more than 2 kg weight in 2 days
  • can’t lie down to sleep
  • are coughing at night
  • are getting swelling in the feet, ankles, legs or stomach
  • have chest pain.

It’s really important to monitor the fluid balance in your body. Weigh yourself every day so you know if fluid is building up. You may need to manage how much fluid you drink each day, or take medicines. You will need to restrict your fluids to 1.5 L/day. Eating less salt also helps control fluid.

Talk with your doctor or health practitioner about what you need to do for your situation.

Lifestyle changes

Along with seeing your doctor or health practitioner regularly and taking your medicines as prescribed, lifestyle factors make a big difference in managing heart failure. 

What you can do:

  • Two of the most important things to do are to restrict your fluid intake to 1.5 L/day and to weigh yourself daily. If your weight increases by 2 kgs over 2 days you need to see your local doctor immediately.
  • Be smoke-free: Smoking reduces the amount of oxygen in your blood and damages the walls of your arteries. Stopping smoking is one of the most important things that you can do to improve your condition. More about smoking
  • Eat less salt: Salt causes your body to retain fluid. Make sure you eat low salt, no salt, or reduced salt foods. Don't add salt to your food at the table or during cooking. Read more about eating less salt.
  • Eat more fruit and vegetables.
  • Limit saturated fat, and avoid trans fats. Replace these unhealthy fats with the healthier monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats. Read more about fats
  • Limit alcohol: Alcohol can cause more damage to your heart. Talk to your doctor about what’s right for you. Read about cutting down on alcohol
  • Limit caffeine and soft drinks: they can cause high blood pressure and make your heart race and not pump properly. 
  • Exercise every day. Talk to your doctor or health practitioner about what exercise might suit you.

Heart failure programs

You may be able to attend a special program to help you manage your heart failure. This may consist of a heart failure nurse visiting you at home or attending a heart failure exercise program at your local health centre. Contact the Heart Foundation Helpline for more information.

Living well with heart failure - Information to help you feel better

This is an easy-to-read book for people who have heart failure and their carers. It has information that will help you feel better and that you can discuss with your doctor or nurse. Keep track of your medicines and fluid intake by filling in these charts with your nurse, pharmacist or doctor and keep it with you for your medical appointments.


Living well with heart failure - Information to help you feel better (PDF)