Treating and managing heart failure

While heart failure is a lifelong condition, a combination of medication and lifestyle changes can help you live well for longer.

There is no one way of treating and managing heart failure. Your management program will be tailored to you and will usually involve a combination of medications, managing fluid retention, and lifestyle changes. In some cases surgery for devices such as pacemakers and defibrillators may also be required.

Medication

Several different medications may be prescribed by your doctor to help you manage your heart failure. Some medications can help treat the underlying heart problems that are causing your heart failure, such as high blood pressure and coronary heart disease. These include:
  • ACE (angiotensin converting enzyme) inhibitors
  • beta-blockers 
  • anticoagulants

Other medications, such as diuretics, help prevent or treat any fluid building up in your body. These medications can also help protect you from heart attacks, stroke and kidney failure.

Read more on different types of medications for heart failure.

Managing fluid retention

For patients with heart failure, it’s important to reduce the fluid building up in your body. You can do this by: 

  • Taking medication. Taking diuretics (fluid medications) as directed by your doctor. 
  • Watching how much fluid you drink or eat.Your doctor will advise you how much fluid you can eat and drink each day. Depending on your heart failure symptoms you may need to restrict your fluid intake to 1-1.5L a day. This amount may need to be adjusted in hot weather, when you are sick or have a fever.  
  • Weighing yourself daily. It’s also recommended you weigh yourself daily, preferably around the same time in the morning (after you’ve been to the toilet but before you’ve dressed or eaten breakfast). As 1kg weight is equivalent to 1L of water, by recording your weight daily you’ll be able notice if you have gained weight suddenly and this can let you know if fluid is building up in your body. 

If your weight increases by more than 2kg over two consecutive days, call your doctor or heart failure nurse as soon as possible.

Cutting down on salt

Eating too much sodium (part of salt) can also affect your heart failure as it can cause your body to retain fluid and make your symptoms worse. The Heart Foundation recommends people with heart failure eat no more than 2-3g sodium a day (about a teaspoon or two of salt).

As most of the sodium we eat comes from packaged and processed foods, one way to help get your salt intake down is to eat more fresh produce.

If eating packaged and processed food, make sure to choose ‘low-sodium’ options where available – this means they contain less than 120mg sodium per 100g. You can find out how much sodium is in packaged food by looking at the nutrition information panel. You could also use the SaltSwitch filter in the FoodSwitch app. Simply scan the barcode of a packaged food with your smartphone camera and it’ll give you an idea of whether this food is high in salt or not, as well as a list of similar foods with less salt that’s a healthier choice you could switch to.

To further help reduce your sodium intake don’t add salt to your food at the table or during cooking. It may seem hard to cut down on salt at first, but your taste buds will adapt. It may help to add flavour to your food with other taste boosters such as garlic, herbs and spices.

Read more on other heart healthy lifestyle changes.

Surgery

In some cases, surgery may be required, though it depends on a number of factors including the cause of your heart failure and your general health. This may include surgery to replace or repair heart valves, cardiac resynchronisation therapy with a special kind of pacemaker that helps the heart beat properly, or to put in a defibrillator to monitor or correct your heart rate.

Watch out for health conditions that can affect your heart failure

Many people who have moderate or severe heart failure also have or maybe at increased risk of other health problems. These other health conditions can affect how you manage your heart failure. 

  • Coronary heart disease. This is a condition where fatty plaque builds up inside your arteries and can make blood flow difficult. This can lead to heart muscle damage and cause heart failure. Looking after your overall heart health is important for managing both conditions. 
  • High blood pressure (hypertension). This can cause heart failure as the effects of high blood pressure puts strain on the heart. It’s important to keep your blood pressure healthy so you’re not asking your heart to do more than it should.
  • Diabetes. If not under control, diabetes increases your risk of heart disease so it’s important to monitor your blood glucose levels and keep them within a healthy range.
  • Kidney disease. This can lead to fluid retention, and heart failure can also make certain types of kidney disease worse.
  • Pneumonia, flu and serious chest infections. These illnesses affect the amount of oxygen that gets to your blood from the lungs, and can place more strain on the heart. 
  • Anaemia, infections and thyroid disease. These are other conditions that can put a strain on your heart. 

So it’s important that you take extra care if you have any of these conditions, and talk to your doctor about what you need to do to stay healthy and look after your heart health.

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