Heart failure

Symptoms of heart failure: oedema, palpitations and wakefulness

The other main symptoms of heart failure include feeling congested or full of fluid (oedema), having an irregular heartbeat, finding it difficult to sleep at night, having a small appetite and poor circulation. As with symptoms of breathlessness and tiredness, these symptoms are not specific to heart failure and can also occur in other medical conditions (see 'Feeling breathless and tired'). Medication will usually help to relieve the symptoms described here.

Oedema or swelling of the ankles and feet is a common symptom of heart failure. Other parts of the body such as the abdomen may also get a build-up of fluid, though most people said that medication helped to alleviate the problem. Some people with more serious heart failure described how fluid could build up in the lungs. One woman said that at one stage before starting medication she had felt as though she was almost drowning in her own body but that she had responded to drugs and treatment.

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Any prolonged irregular heart rhythm ('arrhythmia') may indicate the presence of heart disease; one man who had experienced palpitations as a child said that since starting treatment his palpitations didn't worry him as much and that he now knew what kinds of things caused them. Someone else said she had noticed that her palpitations happened at the same time as chest and stomach pains.

Difficulty sleeping through the night from time to time was a common experience, though others said they had always slept very well. Sometimes people had woken themselves up coughing but said that this had been put right when their medication was changed. Others described how they slept for 3 or 4 hours at a time during the night. Waking up during the night was acceptable to some, but one man said he missed getting a full night's sleep. Nurses had often advised people to go to sleep propped up with pillows; some had found this helpful and others said that they slipped down the bed during the night.

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Several people talked about their poor circulation; one man mentioned having very cold feet and shins and another said his feet were too hot at night. Someone else said that his skin had become flaky because his circulation was so poor.

Feeling uncomfortably full after eating small amounts of food was also something people noticed though not everyone associated it with heart failure. Some said they had smaller appetites than before and had put it down to their medication (see 'Common side effects of heart failure medication').

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For more information on heart failure see the British Heart Foundations website, it has a number of useful publications including ‘Living with heart failure’ and ‘An everyday guide to living with heart failure’ which explain heart failure in more detail.


Last reviewed April 2016.
Last updated April 2016.



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