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Let's Talk About Congestive Heart Failure

Learn how to manage it and live well

Congestive heart failure. We know it sounds like a terminal illness. But VA is here to tell you that we have patients who live a long time with a great quality of life. All you need to know is how to manage it.

What is congestive heart failure

Some people describe it as your body is a car and your heart is the engine. The engine is weak and because of that, fluid backs into your lungs. It feels like you're drowning or suffocating. It's VA's job to determine what caused your engine to fail. You can also adopt some new approaches to eating, drinking and sleep.

Salt intake

A common question Veterans ask their health care team is how to deal with cravings, especially for salt. You should limit salt intake to 2,000 milligrams a day. That's barely a teaspoon. Great substitutes for salt include garlic, red or black pepper, and thyme. We promise, after four weeks you won't miss the salt. The next time you're at a restaurant, you'll notice every bit of salt.

Cravings to drink

You should limit your drinking to 64 ounces a day. VA recommends chewing gum or candy, sugarless if your diabetic. Some Veterans recommend freezing grapes. It helps deal with cravings to drink. Freeze whatever fruit you like. Another Veteran recommends freezing your water bottle. Instead of just drinking it straight, freeze it, and then you can sip on it for several hours.

Lousy plumbing

It's VA's job to determine what caused the engine to fail or to weaken. One of the most common things is lousy plumbing. We can fix that with a procedure called heart catheterization. We can also remedy it sometimes with bypass surgery. In addition to bad plumbing, it can be a leaky valve or tight valve where the opening is tiny. When this occurs, not enough blood gets through the opening, making it very easy for fluid to back up in the lungs.

Worries with sleep

If a Veteran has a bigger tongue, it can block their breathing tube. When this happens, it blocks the breathing tube, and not enough normal oxygen enters the lungs. Lungs can collapse, and you can stop breathing. Luckily, our brain wakes us up pretty quickly when this happens. Because sleep can be so tough, you don't get good deep REM sleep. When you don't get REM sleep, you'll be extremely fatigued for the rest of the day. You may also have problems with your memory, headaches when you wake up, uncontrolled blood pressure, and a rapid heartbeat.

Many Veterans wear a mask called the CPAP device. It keeps your lungs open, so you don't stop breathing. You also won't wake up in the middle of the night, causing you to get a good deep sleep.

Hints of congestive heart failure

If you are getting short of breath when you lay down and must sit up to breath, or you get on that scale in the morning, and you gained 3 pounds of unexplained weight gain than that's most likely congestive heart failure. Generally, that means the fluid is back, and you had to much salt or water.

Water intake

Your health care team may recommend you double up on water pills. When you double up, do that for two to three days until you lose those 3 pounds of extra fluid. If that doesn't work, schedule an appointment right away. If you have any questions about whether you have too much fluid or perhaps dehydrated, send your health care team a Secure Message (sign in required).

Read More

Understanding Heart Failure (Veterans Health Library)

Heart Failure (National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute)

5 Steps to a Healthier Heart

Updated March 11, 2020