Proven ways to manage heart failure

If you have heart failure, there’s a lot you can do to help manage your condition and help stop it from getting worse. Professor Darrel Francis, Professor of Cardiology at Imperial College London, explains. 

1. Take your medications

The body has many signalling systems whose purpose it is to leap into action for short periods of acute stress or in emergency situations. These systems can be beneficial for brief emergencies, but if left on continuously (as can happen in a long-term condition such as heart failure) they become like a car alarm that blares day and night: more disruptive than beneficial. This is one of the reasons why heart failure can become worse over time.

Happily, we now have medications that switch off these emergency hormone systems. These include ACE inhibitors (drugs ending in “pril”) and beta-blockers (drugs ending in “olol”). It’s really important to take the medications you’ve been prescribed. 

If you think you’re experiencing side effects, talk to your specialist nurse or doctor. When well-conducted clinical trials have been carried out, in almost all cases, it is revealed that the side effects are almost as common in patients taking a placebo (a dummy pill) as in those taking a the real medication – suggesting that the effects are caused either by the disease itself or by the expectation of side effects rather than the actual treatment.

  • Learn more about different medications in our Drug Cabinet section.

2. Keep as active as you can

It’s important to stay as active as possible. Sometimes well-meaning friends will make advise you to “take it easy”. If doing something makes you feel unwell, it seems common sense to avoid doing it.

However, for a patient with heart failure, the advice to “take it easy” is actually a catastrophe. The consequence of withdrawing from activity is that the rest of the body loses its resilience and ends up becoming as weak as the heart. BHF researchers have shown the value of regular, deliberate, physical exercise in heart failure – this not only reduces everyday symptoms but seems to prevent sudden deterioration and even deaths.

Feel free to take a break when you need to, but it is the exercise and not the rest that does you good. 

  • Watch our animation to learn about what happens in your body when you exercise.
  • Read 8 ways to get active every day.

3. Report new or worsening symptoms to a doctor or nurse

The earlier action is taken, the better the outcome can be. Catching a build-up of excess fluid early can prevent hospital admission.

New treatments are now available for some cases of heart failure. For example, a special advanced pacemaker called a Cardiac Resynchronisation Therapy (CRT) pacemaker can be implanted to restore coordination of the heart chambers when they contract. These devices have had stunning success in improving health and survival, supported by BHF research. They aren’t right for everyone, but it’s worth talking to your specialist if you feel like your current treatments aren’t working.

4. Weigh yourself every day, before you eat or drink

Even an increase of 1–2lb can be significant; it may mean excess fluid is building up. If you’ve been told to restrict fluid intake, stick to the limit.

Some healthcare professionals may encourage patients to increase their own diuretics (or ‘water tablets’) when they notice rapid weight gain. This is useful during times when your GP surgery is closed.

5. Avoid excess salt

Too much salt in your diet can increase blood pressure and fluid retention. Don’t cook with salt or add it to your food, and use the traffic light labels on food packaging to help you. If you’d like to add flavour to your food you can replace salt with a variety of herbs and spices.

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