Heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure: feeling breathless, tired and lifeless

Heart failure has many symptoms - breathlessness, low levels of energy, congestion in the chest, swollen feet and ankles, bouts of dizziness and fainting, nausea, persistent coughing, feeling bloated, being unable to sleep and palpitations (see also 'Symptoms of heart failure: oedema, palpitations and wakefulness'). Many of these symptoms occur in other illnesses and so should not necessarily be linked to heart failure. People with heart failure may experience one or more of these symptoms and most can be relieved with the appropriate medication.

Breathlessness (or dyspnoea) has been called a 'hallmark' of heart failure and is probably its most common symptom. For some people being short of breath occurred when they tried to do too much in a day, took too much exercise (e.g. walking, hill climbing, gardening, line-dancing and fishing) or tried to lift things. Avoiding certain activities and taking things slowly worked well for some people and medication was also a help. (See also 'Home life and everyday routines'). Those with more severe heart failure could experience breathlessness when they were lying down and resting and one man said that this had worried him and made him go and see his doctor.

Several people described breathlessness in the lead up to getting treatment and diagnosis for heart failure. One woman described how her breathlessness got worse in a short space of time and that she had thought at first she had a chest infection. Others who had had heart failure for several years said sometimes they felt very short of breath as well as tired and that this combination of feelings could be triggered by everyday things such as tearing up bread to feed the birds or having a shower.

Feelings of weariness, fatigue or tiredness made many people want to slow down or stop what they were doing and rest. Being very tired led some into what they called a 'bad day' when they felt listless and tired on and off all day (see 'Bad days, anxiety and depression'). Others described weariness in relation to losing physical strength, for example noticing they had less strength in their arms and found it difficult to lift or carry as much as before. Energetic gardening was something people often said they missed (see 'Sports, hobbies and activities').

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Some described a general loss of interest in things that they had previously been passionate about. One man who had always loved cars and caravanning had not connected his lack of interest in them with heart failure and said he felt much better once his drugs were altered.

For more information on heart failure see the British Heart Foundations website. It has a number of useful publications which explain heart failure in more detail.


Last reviewed April 2016.
Last updated April 2016.


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