Congestive Cardiac Failure

Medically Reviewed By William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Was this helpful?

What is congestive cardiac failure?

Congestive cardiac failure is a condition in which the heart loses the ability to pump blood efficiently throughout the body. The disease affects other organs in the body, resulting in breathing difficulty, reduced kidney function, and fluid accumulation in body tissues (edema) from poor circulation.

Congestive cardiac failure develops when the heart muscle becomes weakened and can no longer circulate blood effectively through the body. Most commonly, people develop congestive cardiac failure as a result of coronary artery disease (disease of the arteries that supply blood and oxygen to the heart). Other causes of congestive cardiac failure are infection, congenital heart disease, heart attack, heart valve disease, and some types of heart rhythm irregularities (arrhythmias).

Congestive cardiac failure is a chronic, long-term condition, although it can sometimes develop suddenly. The signs and symptoms of congestive cardiac failure vary in duration and frequency. Many people with the condition have no specific symptoms at all. Some people may have milder symptoms such as cough, shortness of breath on exertion, and swelling of the feet and ankles, while others may experience more serious symptoms such as extreme shortness of breath even at rest, coughing up pink froth, and wheezing.

Fortunately, several different types of medications can be used to stabilize and reduce the symptoms of congestive cardiac failure.

Left untreated, congestive cardiac failure may lead to severe cardiopulmonary problems. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) for serious symptoms, such as sudden fluid buildup, rapid or irregular heartbeat, sudden, severe shortness of breath (dyspnea) and coughing up pink, foamy mucus, or chest pain.

Seek prompt medical care if you are being treated for congestive cardiac failure but mild symptoms recur or are persistent, such as fatigue and weakness, shortness of breath when you exert yourself or when you lie down, reduced ability to exercise, or swelling in your abdomen, legs, ankles and feet.

What are the symptoms of congestive cardiac failure?

Congestive cardiac failure results from cardiac, circulatory, and lung disorders that may produce a number of symptoms. The symptoms can vary in intensity among individuals.

Common symptoms of congestive cardiac failure

At times, any of these congestive cardiac failure symptoms can be severe:

Serious symptoms that might indicate a life-threatening condition

In some cases, congestive cardiac failure can be life threatening. Seek immediate medical care (call 911) if you, or someone you are with, have any of these life-threatening symptoms including:

  • Chest pain or pressure
  • Coughing up pink, foamy mucus
  • Irregular heart rate (arrhythmia)
  • Rapid heart rate (tachycardia)
  • Sudden fluid buildup anywhere in the body
  • Sudden, severe shortness of breath

What causes congestive cardiac failure?

Congestive cardiac failure is caused by a weakened heart muscle that is unable to effectively circulate blood throughout the body. Coronary artery disease, a common cause of a weakened heart muscle, is a narrowing of the small blood vessels that supply blood and oxygen to the heart. Obstructed blood vessels cause the heart muscle to work harder. Over time, the heart muscle becomes weakened and loses its pumping action, resulting in blood flow backing up in other areas of the body and causing fluid to build up in the lungs, liver, gastrointestinal tract, arms, and legs.

Congestive cardiac failure may also result from any condition that weakens the heart muscle, such as congenital heart disease, infection, heart attack, heart valve disease, and some types of irregularities of heart rhythm (arrhythmias).

What are the risk factors for congestive cardiac failure?

A number of factors increase the risk of developing congestive cardiac failure. Not all people with risk factors will get congestive cardiac failure. Risk factors for congestive cardiac failure include:

How is congestive cardiac failure treated?

Treatment of congestive cardiac failure begins with seeking medical care from your health care provider. To determine if you have congestive cardiac failure, your health care provider will ask you to undergo diagnostic testing.

Medications used to treated congestive cardiac failure

A combination of medications is used as the mainstay of treatment for congestive cardiac failure. It is important to follow your treatment plan for congestive cardiac failure precisely and to take all medication as instructed to avoid complications. Medications used to treat congestive cardiac failure include:

  • Aldosterone antagonists such as eplerenone (Inspra) and spironolactone (Aldactone)

  • Angiotensin-converting enzyme (ACE) inhibitors such as captopril (Capoten), enalapril (Vasotec), and lisinopril (Prinvil, Zestril)

  • Angiotensin receptor blockers (ARBs) such as losartan (Cozaar) and valsartan (Diovan)

  • Beta-blockers such as bisoprolol (Zebeta), carvedilol (Coreg), and metoprolol (Lopressor)

  • Digoxin (Lanoxin)

  • Diuretics such as tipstanide (Bumex) and furosemide (Lasix)

What you can do to improve your congestive cardiac failure

In addition to following your health care provider’s instructions and taking your medications as prescribed, you can improve your cardiac congestive failure by:

  • Following a heart-healthy diet

  • Limiting fats and cholesterol in your diet

  • Limiting fluids if instructed by your health care provider

  • Limiting the amount of sodium (salt) you eat (less than 1,500 mg per day)

  • Maintaining a healthy body weight

  • Quitting smoking

  • Reducing stress

  • Restricting alcohol use

  • Weighing yourself daily

What are the potential complications of congestive cardiac failure?

Damage to different body organs, a possible complication of congestive cardiac failure, can be serious and even life threatening in some cases. You can help minimize your risk of serious complications by following the treatment plan you and your health care professional design specifically for you.

Complications of congestive cardiac failure include:

  • Arrhythmia (irregular heart rate)

  • Heart valve problems

  • Kidney damage or failure

  • Myocardial infarction (heart attack)

  • Stroke

Was this helpful?
Medical Reviewer: William C. Lloyd III, MD, FACS
Last Review Date: 2020 Nov 20
View All Heart Failure Articles
THIS TOOL DOES NOT PROVIDE MEDICAL ADVICE. It is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. Never ignore professional medical advice in seeking treatment because of something you have read on the site. If you think you may have a medical emergency, immediately call your doctor or dial 911.
  1. Heart failure overview. PubMed Health, a service of the NLM from the NIH.
  2. Congestive heart failure. American Heart Association.
  3. Bope ET, Kellerman RD (Eds.) Conn’s Current Therapy.Philadelphia: Saunders, 2012.
  4. Go AS, Mozaffarian D, Roger VL, et al. Heart disease and stroke statistics--2013 update: a report from the American Heart Association. Circulation 2013; 127:e6.