Even though congestive heart failure is a commonly used term, the details can get a bit confusing when you really dig into what it means. That’s because “congestive heart failure” isn’t a separate condition from “heart failure,” Dana Weisshaar, MD, cardiologist at Kaiser Permanente in Santa Clara, Calif., tells SELF. Rather, the term is used to describe a type of heart failure that causes fluid retention, or congestion, throughout the body. Often, heart failure causes fluid buildup, which is responsible for many of its characteristic symptoms. And it can have serious consequences: 90% of people hospitalized with heart failure are hospitalized due to symptoms resulting from congestion, according to research.1
However, although congestive heart failure is common, healthcare professionals not using the term as a synonym for any type of heart failure, Dipti Itchhaporia, MD, director of the heart failure management program at Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian and president of the American College of Cardiology, tells SELF. In fact, most medical experts have abandoned the use of this differentiator. “It’s a bit of an archaic term now. We just tend to use heart failure as a term.
So why is it important to understand these nuances of heart failure, anyway? For one thing, the condition is common. About 6.2 million adults in the United States suffer from heart failure, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
Still unsure what congestive heart failure means for your health? Before, SELF asked cardiologists to break down what to know about a diagnosis, from symptoms to treatment for congestive heart failure.
What is congestive heart failure and how is it different from other types of heart failure?
First of all, it is useful to understand what happens in the body when a person develops heart failure in general. Despite what the name suggests, heart failure means your heart can’t pump enough oxygen-rich blood to keep your body functioning as it should, not that the organ has stopped working, according to the CDC. If your heart isn’t working properly, everyday tasks like climbing a few stairs can become difficult, especially if you feel short of breath.
When your heart struggles like this, it can also affect your other organs. “Many people with heart failure cannot pass fluids normally and retain volume rather than urinating extra fluids,” said Jennifer Haythe, MD, associate professor of medicine and co-director of Columbia Women’s Heart Center. In this case, your kidneys aren’t getting enough blood to filter excess fluid from your body into your urine, leading to the “congestion” that characterizes congestive heart failure, according to the American Heart Association. It can happen suddenly (acute heart failure) or over time (chronic heart failure).
It is important to note that not everyone with heart failure will develop fluid overload. “I prefer to make the distinction that not all heart failure is congestive,” says Dr. Weisshaar.
back to top
What are the common symptoms of congestive heart failure?
Symptoms of congestive heart failure can overlap with those of other types of heart failure, but you may also have specific signs that indicate there is excess fluid in your body.
According to the Mayo Clinic and the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute (NHLBI), some common symptoms of heart failure include:
- feeling very tired and weak during daily activities.
- A fast or irregular heartbeateven when you are relaxing.
- Nauseato the point of losing your appetite.
- Chest painor feeling of tightness and heaviness in the chest.
- Bluish lips or fingerswhich happens when your blood is extremely low in oxygen.